As the long winter ahead portends colder weather and more illnesses and deaths from COVID-19, the financial consequences of the pandemic have led thousands of Coloradans to fall behind on their natural gas and electricity bills.
A bipartisan bill — passed during a recent special session of the Colorado Legislature — provided additional money for utility assistance after advocates raised the alarm that federal utility relief funds would run out by Dec. 4.
Senate Bill 20B-3, which was signed by Gov. Jared Polis Dec. 7, provides an additional $5 million to a fund that low-income Coloradans can access to help pay their energy bills. The bill was sponsored by Sens. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, along with Reps. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, and Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain.
Low-income Coloradans face a long list of needs this winter, Fields said. Some of those may take priority over utility bills.
“When you think about maybe people having to work part-time — or maybe they’ve lost their jobs altogether — rent is due along with other kinds of issues like food and water, and, you know, what it takes to maintain a home,” she told Newsline. “All of those things come due once a month.”
An executive order first issued by Gov. Jared Polis in June, which he’s renewed monthly since then, directs the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to work with utilities to waive utility reconnection fees and suspend fees for late payments. However, a moratorium on utility shut-offs for customers who can’t pay their energy bills expired in June when the governor declined to renew it.
Utilities regulated by the state government — not including city-owned utilities or rural electric cooperatives — must submit quarterly reports to the Department of Regulatory Agencies that include data on power shutoffs for nonpaying customers. The latest report from Xcel Energy, which serves nearly 2 million residential customers in Colorado, shows that 23 natural gas customers, 38 electric customers and 213 gas and electric customers lost their power between July 1 and Sept. 30 because they didn’t pay.
The number of Xcel accounts shut off in the third quarter of 2020 is dwarfed by those with late payments. As of Sept. 30, 31,188 of Xcel’s residential natural gas accounts, 55,535 electric accounts and 187,822 accounts with both gas and electric power had overdue payments.
Other state-regulated utilities didn’t report any shutoffs in their latest documents submitted to DORA. However, Black Hills Energy reported 17,824 residential natural gas and electricity accounts with overdue payments as of Sept. 30. Atmos Energy reported 3,164 overdue residential accounts, and Colorado Natural Gas reported 742 overdue.
Under Polis’ executive order, utilities must help non-paying customers set up a payment plan before disconnecting them. But people with overdue payments could be seeing their bills stack up at a time when the coronavirus is raging in Colorado, and unemployment remains high.
‘People are in dire straits right now’
State legislators realized in the spring that as jobless numbers spiked, people would need help paying for utilities. House Bill 20-1412, which state legislators passed in June, laid the framework for the December special session bill.
Through HB-1412, lawmakers allocated $4.8 million of federal coronavirus relief money for a similar purpose: helping people pay their utility bills. The funding was directed to the Colorado Energy Office for distribution through its nonprofit partner, Energy Outreach Colorado.
“The money is running out, and so what we want to do is make sure that we can kind of just close that gap, and … provide some relief for people who are still struggling,” Fields said. “Congress has been too slow,” she added, referring to stalled negotiations over a second round of pandemic relief.
SB-3 requires the Colorado Energy Office to provide another $5 million for direct utility assistance to Energy Outreach Colorado, which will have to distribute the money to people in need before June 30, 2021.
The bill is necessary, said Energy Outreach spokesperson Denise Stepto, because that original $4.8 million was due to run out by Dec. 4.
The organization “saw a 40% increase in volume” of requests for assistance from 2019 to 2020 amid fallout from the pandemic, Stepto said. She wasn’t sure whether utilities had begun shutting off power to customers who couldn’t pay because they faced pandemic-induced financial strain.
“Utilities have notified people that they’re past due,” Stepto said. “They do tell people, ‘You have options. You can either pay this all right away, this big chunk of money, or contact us'” to set up a payment plan.
The bill passed on a vote of 34-0 in the Senate and 59-5 in the House, drawing support from most Republican lawmakers as well as Democrats, who hold the majority in both chambers.
“When I think about children going without heat in winter, it is just — it’s beyond heartbreaking,” Landgraf said at the bill’s signing.
COVID-19 has created economic hardships for people in both rural and urban areas of Colorado, Crowder pointed out during a Nov. 30 committee hearing on SB-3.
“It’s just something that has impacted everybody in the state,” he said. “It’s a tough deal. And, you know, we in government have probably caused some of these problems, too, and now we’re asking the taxpayers to help bail these same people out — so hopefully we can learn from it and move on.”
SB-3 is intended to help cover utility bills for Coloradans who might not be eligible for the federally funded Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP.
Coloradans who qualify for help through the LEAP program have to prove they earn less than 60% of the state median income. Under the current eligibility guidelines, a two-person household earning less than $3,425 a month, or $41,100 a year, could use the federal utility assistance. People applying for LEAP must be permanent legal residents or U.S. citizens, or have household members who are citizens.
The money made available through HB-1412 and its follow-up, SB-3, covers people who’ve faced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. While LEAP is available for those making 60% or less of state median income, Energy Outreach Colorado can help those who earn slightly more: up to 80% of area median income.
For example, a two-person household in Jefferson County could earn up to $5,333 a month, or $63,996 a year, to qualify. A four-person household in the same county could earn up to $6,667 a month or $80,004 annually.
Stepto points out that some people are caring for children at home, meaning they may need to use more energy for heating, lighting and cooking than in normal times. That makes paying utility bills even harder.
“People are in dire straits right now,” she said. “People are losing their jobs, and they’re underemployed and they’re struggling.”
Polis’ signature on SB-3 clears the way for the Colorado Energy Office to receive the $5 million in general fund money. The office must transfer those funds to Energy Outreach Colorado within three days.
SB-3 also allows the Colorado Energy Office to conduct an audit or review of Energy Outreach Colorado’s financial transactions and accounts regarding the pandemic relief funds to make sure they were used properly, but identifying information about the people receiving help must remain private.
How to get help
Stepto recommends that people seeking help on their utility bills contact Energy Outreach Colorado at 1-866-HEAT-HELP (1-866-432-8435) to talk with someone about how to apply. Before they receive help from the nonprofit, they’ll need to apply for LEAP through the state, which they can do online through the Colorado PEAK website or by calling the same hotline.
Coloradans can also contact one of Energy Outreach Colorado’s partner agencies to get help applying for both types of assistance.
Once someone is approved for funds, the nonprofit pays their utility directly, so the process is “as fast as possible” — though payment doesn’t happen instantaneously, Stepto said, because “volume is high” and the nonprofit must verify account information and economic need.
“When we find out that you are in a situation that’s dire, we are able to contact the utility and transfer funds,” she said.