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Norwich Public Utilities to resume non-hardship service shut-offs in October

Norwich — Norwich Public Utilities will begin nonpayment utility service shut-offs in October for customers who are not signed up for hardship assistance or payment plans after having suspended all shut-offs in May, when the state-mandated winter moratorium ended.

The Board of Public Utilities Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a plan that allows utility service shut-offs to resume Oct. 1 for customers in arears, except hardship customers who sign up for special payment plans. Customers in economic hardships have until Nov. 1 to sign up for interest-free payment plans that would run to July 2022.

NPU officials said ending the blanket moratorium will give incentives to customers who are able to pay but have not paid utility bills since last spring. Jeff Brining, NPU customer service division manager, said about 3,500 residential customers and 500 commercial NPU customers are behind on their bills.

In a separate presentation Tuesday, NPU officials provided a three-month COVID-19 impact projection from Sept. 1 through Nov. 30. NPU originally had budgeted for $21.9 million in overall revenues but, because of the pandemic, now is projecting $19.7 million — a drop of $2.19 million.

In response to ongoing financial losses, NPU has reached agreements with employee unions to defer raises through December, drastically cut overtime, frozen most vacant positions and deferred maintenance and capital projects. The moves have cut expenses from April through November by $9.4 million.

NPU has entered special payment plans with 765 customers who owe a combined $1.1 million, but Brining said more than half have missed at least one payment in their arrangements.

“We encourage customers to call us up and let us know what’s going on,” Brining said Wednesday. “If we can get someone signed up for (utility) assistance, the problem goes away.”

NPU works closely with Norwich Human Services, the Thames Valley Council for Community Action, which has a utility assistance representative stationed at the NPU customer service center, and with veterans’ assistance groups to help qualifying customers sign up for various aid programs.

Brining said ending the COVID-19 moratorium was designed to combat the steadily climbing back bills owed by some customers who might be able to pay but have no incentives to make regular payments.

“There’s been a stagnation in payment in the past days, weeks and months as this carries on,” Brining said. “Some customers are unable to pay and are not paying, and some are able to pay and electing not to pay, and we don’t know the difference.”

Customers with economic hardships are urged to contact NPU customer service by phone at (860) 887-2555 or online at norwichpublicutilities.com to apply for hardship plans. Appointments can be made for in-person interviews while the customer service center at 173 N. Main St. remains closed during the pandemic.

Brining said although the new plan allows shut-offs to start Oct. 1, actual shut-offs likely won’t start until mid-October.

Customers deemed not in hardship situations would not have their services restored Nov. 1, when the winter shut-off moratorium begins, Brining said. Only those who can show a new hardship — job loss or other circumstances — would have service restored for the winter.

“Fairness is the center of all of this,” NPU spokesman Chris Riley said. “If you can pay your bills (but don't), there are consequences. Cutoff is the most expensive method.”

In the NPU special payment plan, customers must make full payments on their current bills for the first two months with no payments required on the back-due balance. The overdue balance then is divided evenly over the remaining months in the plan, with equal amounts due per month, plus the current bill, until the balance is paid off by July 2022. No interest is owed on the back-due balance if payments are maintained.

Customers who default once must pay their current bills in advance, along with the back-due balance, and those who default a second time would owe full penalty interest of 18% per year on the back-due balance.

NPU officials admitted some customers may not be able to make payments yet during the COVID-19 emergency. But Brining said no one with proven hardships would face service shut-offs.

c.bessette@theday.com

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