Action by Congress, PSC Could Aid Struggling Utility Customers

Legislation approved Monday by Congress will provide help to utility customers behind on their bills and low-income customers of water and wastewater utilities.

In addition, the state Public Service Commission on Tuesday approved an arrearage forgiveness program for low-income customers of Alliant Energy Corp. who are behind on their utility bills.

“Taken together, these are important steps to provide relief to those suffering from the economic toll the pandemic has spawned,” said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, Wisconsin’s consumer advocate for residential and small business utility customers.

The pilot program proposed by Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin Power & Light utility would forgive past due balances if low-income customers are able to remain current on their utility bills for 12 straight months.

In comments to the PSC supporting the proposal, CUB noted, “As our nation’s recently refreshed struggle with racial, social, and economic injustice and inequity has reminded us, many chronically low-income individuals struggle due to societal factors entirely beyond their control. Additionally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many into personally uncharted territories of economic hardship. WP&L’s proposal will provide the utility with an additional valuable tool to assist its customers who are struggling the most.”

Other major Wisconsin utilities have some form of forgiveness program for low-income customers.

Approval of the pilot came a day after Congress passed a $900 billion COVID relief bill that includes $25 billion for rental assistance, which can be used to pay rent and utility bills that have gone unpaid during the pandemic.

CUB is part of the Customers First Coalition, which last week sent a letter to the Wisconsin congressional delegation asking for funding for to aid customers struggling with utility bills.

A separate portion of the bill, which will fund the U.S. government through September, will provide $638 million nationwide for low-income assistance for customers of water and wastewater utilities.

“The pandemic and recession have made it hard for those struggling to pay for food, let alone their rent and utilities,” Content said.  “Targeting help to those who need it makes sense, and the legislation manages to do that, but missed an opportunity for a bigger infusion of assistance for the poor.”