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Our Opinion: What's Wilson's plan to prevent COVID-19 utility shutoffs?

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No air conditioning or box fans on boiling June days, no refrigerator humming to preserve food and no running water for showers, baths and hand-washing. 

Those bleak conditions could become reality for hundreds or even thousands of Wilson families if past-due bills lead to mass utility shutoffs when Gov. Roy Cooper’s moratorium on residential disconnections expires at month’s end.

Since Cooper’s executive order took effect March 31, about 5,600 city of Wilson utilities customers have fallen behind on payments, according to figures the Wilson City Council reviewed at its meeting earlier this month. Nearly a fifth of all households receiving electric and water service had accrued a past-due balance. 

The governor signed Executive Order 124 in order to prevent North Carolinians from being disconnected during the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly while a statewide stay-at-home order was in force. Travel restrictions have since been relaxed. On Friday, our state is set to begin the second phase of reopening local economies, with restaurants allowed to operate at 50% dine-in capacity. 

Cooper’s halt on shutoffs superseded a Wilson City Council resolution that offered more limited relief and would have prevented disconnection for customers who lost their jobs in the coronavirus-caused business shutdown.

Noting that the high number of past-due accounts far exceeds new unemployment estimates, city officials deduced that many customers simply stopped paying because they could. 

“Unfortunately, it is being treated as a payment holiday,” City Manager Grant Goings told council members during the May 7 meeting. “With no penalty or interest, the reason to pay now is gone for a lot of folks.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. The North Carolina Justice Center, along with nearly three dozen public interest and social justice groups, is asking Cooper to extend the shutoff moratorium because hundreds of thousands of struggling ratepayers are in the same boat. 

“It is important to note that we understand the economic hardship that many of the state’s utilities, particularly the unregulated nonprofit and government-owned utilities, are facing as a result of the crisis and the associated loss in revenue due to customers being unable to pay their bills,” the organizations wrote in a Tuesday letter. “While there have been claims that the moratorium is exacerbating that hardship by incentivizing ‘free ridership,’ such claims are unsubstantiated and discount the importance of ensuring access to vital services in order to protect public health.” 

In their 12-page letter to the governor, advocates for North Carolina’s low-income residents ask Cooper to extend the moratorium on utility shutoffs for 60 days or until the state health emergency ends, whichever is later; extend the required repayment period to a minimum of 12 months or offer income-based repayment plans with no set end date; restrict the fees that can be charged for violating repayment agreements; provide emergency water service regardless of payment status; and require immediate reconnection of any household disconnected before the executive order took effect. 

The recommendations would benefit struggling consumers, but they’d also leave utilities — particularly municipal providers like the city of Wilson and other public power communities — in a precarious position. 

In late March, Wilson Energy had about $16 million in reserves with operating expenses of roughly $10 million per month. If all savings are depleted and an increase in nonpayment prevents the utility from breaking even, all city taxpayers would be forced to subsidize the loss. 

The N.C. Justice Center and its partners say Cooper can bail out utilities with a portion of the state’s federal COVID-19 relief funding or money from other sources such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If the state supports Wilson during COVID-19’s aftermath, the city can more easily support its utility customers who have fallen on hard times. 

Absent further executive action, Wilson’s leaders face the troubling prospect of shutting off utility customers en masse as temperatures spike and the coronavirus continues to spread. 

Unless all past-due balances have been paid in the last two weeks, this is a looming crisis that our mayor and city council should already be working around the clock to solve. Can our delegation to the N.C. General Assembly and our members of Congress obtain emergency funding to keep Wilson Energy afloat and prevent blackouts in up to a fifth of city homes? 

Wilsonians don’t leave our neighbors in the dark during their hour of need. Our city government shouldn’t either.