MILWAUKEE - The state’s moratorium on utility disconnections expires on Thursday, April 15. It’s been 18 months since utility companies in Wisconsin could disconnect customers for not paying their bills.
Many Milwaukee residents who need help paying their bills seem to be finding it.
A pawn shop can be like a litmus test for how its neighborhood is faring. Typically, the week before Wisconsin’s annual moratorium on cold weather utility disconnections expires, there’s an increase in borrowing at Neighborhood Pawn in Milwaukee.
"They used to rush in here and be frantic, 'I need to get my lights on,'" said Glenn Lakritz, owner of Neighborhood Pawn.
One week before utility disconnections resume in Wisconsin, Lakritz said fewer people have been pawning items than in previous years. Lakritz has a theory that explains why.
"Because of the stimulus," said Lakritz. "People have got a little bit more money. It's easier for them to pay some of these bills now than it was before."
October 2019 was the last time a utility was disconnected in Wisconsin for unpaid bills. Throughout 2020, the disconnection moratorium was extended multiple times.
Disconnections set to resume
In March 2021, while seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases and an increase in vaccinations, the Public Service Commission (PSC) decided that disconnections could resume on April 15.
Kristy Nieto of the PSC said their decision was made based on the status of vaccinations and COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin.
"The state of Wisconsin had emerged as a national leader in vaccination," said Nieto. "That trend line in new cases, on average per week, had begun to decrease."
We Energies said less than 1% of its customers are currently at risk of disconnection. Even those with mounting balances won’t see their lights go off automatically.
"We make a lot of outreach attempts before anyone is possibly disconnected," said Brendan Conway, spokesperson for We Energies.
We Energies is urging customers who are behind on their energy bills to reach out as soon as possible at either we-energies.com or 800-842-4565. The utility said it will work with customers to arrange payment plans and connect them to financial assistance options.
"As soon as we can get you on a payment plan, then that risk of disconnection disappears," said Conway.
Conway said We Energies has about $250 million dollars in unpaid utility bills. He said it’s unclear how much future customer bills will be impacted by the arrears. Unpaid bills are built into base rates for customers every two to three years.
Federal aid benefits Wisconsin
Increased federal aid is also helping keep the lights on. Since October, $19 million has been dispersed in Milwaukee County through the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program.
Community Advocates and its partners have provided assistance to 40,000 households since the fall. Community Advocates said its average benefit is $500 to $600, which often covers 30% to 40% of the utility balance.
The number of people seeking energy assistance through Community Advocates has gone up since PSC’s decision that balances would finally come due.
"We actually saw a 200% increase in calls that are coming in (since March)," said Maudwella Kirkendoll, chief operating officer of Community Advocates. "We are having staff work Saturdays and Sundays to field those calls."
Relief resources available
As of February, 254 utilities reported to the PSC that 93,263 residential customers would be subject to disconnection by April 2021.
To apply online, they can go to energybenefit.wi.gov, homeenergyplus.wi.gov or call 1-866-HEATWIS. If a customer cannot reach an agreement with their utility, they may contact the PSC by calling 1- 800-225-7729, or by filing a complaint on the PSC website.
To contact Community Advocates about Energy Assistance, call 414-270-4653 or visit communityadvocates.net/what-we-do/energy-assistance.html.
Those who haven’t qualified for energy assistance in the past may qualify for energy assistance in 2021.
Proof of one month’s income is needed to determine eligibility for the funds. Before the pandemic, proof of three months’ income was required. Unemployment benefits and stimulus payments do not count toward monthly income.