Senate Advances Legislation To Promote Assistance Programs, Track Utility Shut Offs, And Fees

Trenton - Legislation sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz, Senator Troy Singleton, and Senator Shirley Turner, to promote utility financial assistance programs and increase data collection and transparency surrounding public utilities, passed the Senate today.

“In addition to the lives COVID-19 has taken, it has severely impacted the finances of New Jersey households,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “Thousands of residents are behind on their utility payments, likely unsure of how they will pay back what is due and anxious about what will happen once the moratorium is lifted. It is crucial that individuals know their rights and the services that are available to help them. It is not only in their best interest but also to the advantage of the utility so they can begin applying for assistance before the moratorium expires and prevent widespread utility shut-offs.”

The bill, S-3326, sponsored by Senators Ruiz and Singleton, would require public and local utility companies to inform customers of their rights and relief measures available to help pay their utility bills during the COVID-19 pandemic and for 18 months following the end of the public health emergency.

“The pandemic has had a severe impact on the financial stability of families throughout our state and many are only able to keep the roof over their heads and the heat on in their homes due to the protections in place right now,” said Senator Singleton (D-Burlington). “As we work on legislation to implement new assistance programs once the utility shut-off moratorium expires, we must also work to ensure residents are aware of the support already out there. This legislation will help to connect more families with the financial support that they need.”

A second bill, S-3335, sponsored by Senators Ruiz and Turner, would require the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), in consultation with the Department of Community Affairs, to prepare and submit a written report containing findings and recommendations concerning the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local utility and public utility service to commercial and residential customers in this State.

“It goes without saying that the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout that accompanied it has greatly impacted both resident’s utility usage and their ability to pay their bills,” said Senator Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “If we are going to enact new assistance programs to help those behind on their payments it’s important we have a good understanding of what programs are already being used and where the greatest need lies so we can take a targeted approach going forward.”

“These issues have always existed, but they have been compounded and brought to light by the realities of the pandemic. It is critical that both regulated and nonregulated utilities are transparent about how COVID-19 has impacted payments, rate increases, grants, and services,” said Senator Ruiz. “This legislation is necessary to demonstrate just how big the issue is and where funds are most needed, so we can properly direct aid and identify any policy gaps that need to be addressed.”

The report, which would be due 30 days after enactment, would include data outlining the number of total customers, how many applied for and how many received financial assistance, how many were charged late fees or disconnected, and differences in average and median bills from year to year. Following the initial report, the BPU would be required to continue collecting the relevant data and publishing the report on a quarterly basis.

The bills were released from the Senate by votes of 33-0 and 32-0, respectively.