Under a new law Gov. Phil Murphy signed last week, the state will examine the impact the pandemic had on the affordability of water and other utilities and require the state Board of Public Utilities to publicly report affordability metrics. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
Even before the pandemic, about a fifth of New Jersey households had trouble paying their water and sewer bills.
Now, under a new law Gov. Phil Murphy signed last week, the state will examine how the pandemic worsened water and utility affordability.
The law requires all water, sewer, electric, and gas utilities to report — on a monthly basis and at the zip-code level — affordability metrics like rates, average and median customer bills and usage, arrears, shutoffs, and tax liens sold on homes for non-payment.
The state Board of Public Utilities will be required to publish quarterly reports, including assessments of whether existing assistance programs meet the needs of customers who have fallen behind on their utility bills.
Such data is key to coming up with solutions for people who can’t afford to pay their utilities, said one environmental advocate.
“There’s a huge data gap,” said Larry Levine, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocated for the bill. “This bill brings some transparency, some daylight, to that issue, and ensures that we’re going to have good data going forward about how and where people are struggling to pay their water and energy bills. There’s a real need to identify the magnitude of the affordability challenge New Jersey has faced for water, to be able to provide financial support for people.”
Under the new law, which was sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), New Jersey now has the strongest transparency requirements in the nation on utility affordability, Levine said.
Illinois and California have similar laws, but reporting requirements only apply to investor-owned utilities. In New Jersey, 60% of the state’s population is served by public water systems, while 40% are served by investor-owned systems — and the new law applies to both, Levine said.
The data that will be reported under the new law could help policymakers better develop assistance programs and help residents avoid utility shutoffs, said Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey.
“With close to one million utility consumers still in arrears and energy prices soaring, the information is needed now more than ever,” Liebman said in a statement.
New Jersey had the longest moratorium on utility shutoffs during the pandemic, but state arrearage data shows more than a million residents and businesses still owe nearly a billion dollars in unpaid utility charges — $763 million in energy as of July, and $56 million in water and sewer as of May.
While New Jersey has a permanent program — called Low Income Home Energy Assistance — to help people pay their gas and electric bills, it has no permanent water assistance program. That’s a major problem, Levine said.
“Water rates have been rising much faster than inflation for decades, and they’re going to keep going up because of the need to invest in our water infrastructure,” he said.
Levine said his group and other utility affordability advocates now hope legislators will pass two bills stalled in the Legislature that would help people better afford their utilities.
One bill would allow public water and sewer systems to discount water, sewer, and stormwater utility fees for low-income residents. Another would appropriate $75 million to create a permanent statewide assistance program for low-income households for water, sewer, and stormwater utility fees.
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