Grace period is over for S.C. utility customers who are behind on bills

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Friday, May 15, 2020

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- For the past two months, utilities were ordered not to cancel services for customers who could not pay their bills on time because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The South Carolina Public Service Commission rescinded that order Thursday, but with specific conditions. Commissioners said companies must help customers set up payment plans and connect them with payment assistance programs if applicable before disconnecting any services.

Earlier this week, Gov. Henry McMaster sent a letter to the Office of Regulatory Staff about this. McMaster requested that the Office of Regulatory Staff work with the Public Service Commission and providers of utility services as they take steps to a return to normal business operations while continuing to provide flexibility and assistance to customers.

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McMaster praised the state’s utilities and cooperatives and their employees for efforts and service during these difficult times. He also asked providers of utility services to proceed with developing and implementing plans for phasing in normal business operations. McMaster also requested that the utilities work with their customers who need assistance to refer them to local organizations or arrange payment plans that will avoid or minimize penalties and service interruptions.

Duke Energy, Dominion Energy South Carolina, and Santee Cooper said they all saw an increase in the number of customers behind on their bills.

"Beginning with May bills, we started proactively offering many customers in arrears an opportunity to participate in budget billing,” Rhonda O'Banion with Dominion said. “Customers in arrears are not normally eligible for budget billing. This will help them spread their past due amount over 12 months."

These power companies said they will continue to work with customers throughout this pandemic.

"We’re encouraging customers who can pay even some of the bill to do so, to avoid building up a large balance that is even harder to pay off,” Mollie Gore with Santee Cooper said. “And we are working with customers who want a payment plan to pay down the balance over time until they’re caught up."

Electric cooperatives in the state were not required to suspend cancellations, but they did so anyway. Rob Ardis is the president and CEO of Santee Electric Cooperative. They have 36,000 members that use their power. According to Ardis, right now, they have about 4,000 different accounts that are behind on their bill. He said because they are a cooperative, their other members have to cover those costs.

"We want to do everything we can that’s reasonable and help folks get back on track,” Ardis said. “We do have to stop the snowball effect at some point. And we got to stop letting people accumulate these debts while they are still somewhat manageable."

Ardis said Santee Electric Cooperative will be working with customers on arrangements, are planning to waive late fees, and are doing anything they can to help.

The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina said since cooperatives operate not-for-profit, they cannot forgive debts.

“We’re reminded every day about the challenge of a balancing the need of being understanding and flexible and at the same time the obligation of paying our own bills,” Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina Executive Vice President Lou Green said.

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