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Proclamation 20-23.4 Directs Utilities to Develop Customer Support Programs


June 17, 2020 by Toni Nelson
Category: Utilities - Billing and Collection , COVID-19

Proclamation 20-23.4 Directs Utilities to Develop Customer Support Programs

Editor's note: Proclamation 20-23.6 extended the deadline for utilities to review and post COVID-19 Customer Support Programs from July 10 to August 1 and provided a new COVID-19 Utility Customer Support Program Guidance Document. Proclamation 20-23.7 extends the utility prohibitions through October 15 and also prohibits utilities from disconnecting service to any residential customer who has contacted the utility to request assistance from the utility's COVID-19 Customer Support Program.


In recognition of the financial hardships that many individuals have faced due to the COVID-19 crisis as well as the importance of maintaining utility services during this time, Governor Inslee has issued a series of proclamations related to utility services. The latest order, Proclamation 20-23.4, now requires local government utilities to develop and post COVID-19 customer support programs by July 10, 2020.

Background

Proclamation 20-23, issued on March 18, “strongly encouraged” utility providers to mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19 on their customers and imposed mandatory prohibitions on investor-owned utilities regulated by the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). But, beginning with Proclamation 20-23.2, issued April 17, the governor extended the order to apply to all local government public utility service providers of energy, water, and telecommunications and retroactively applied the mandatory prohibitions in the original proclamation to March 23, the day of the initial “Stay Home - Stay Healthy” order. Proclamation 20-23.2, and those issued subsequently, prohibit:

  • Disconnecting any residential customers from energy, telecommunications, or water service due to nonpayment, except at the request of the customer;
  • Refusing to reconnect any residential customer who has been disconnected due to nonpayment; and
  • Charging fees for late payment or reconnection of services.

Proclamation 20-23.4, released on May 29, has extended these prohibitions through July 28, 2020, and it has added a new condition for local government utilities: developing a COVID-19 customer support program. The intent is to ensure that residential customers who experienced economic hardship as a result of COVID-19 will continue to receive assistance even after the prohibitions in Proclamation 20-23.4 expire.

COVID-19 Customer Support Programs

As the state recovery plan (known as Safe Start Washington) moves through its phases, many functions and services of local government will begin to return to normal. Local utilities have continued to provide essential services throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but since they have been prohibited from using their normal collection practices, this places the utility customer in a position of becoming further indebted to the utility.

After the proclamations expire, the question remains: How will those indebted individuals be able to repay what could be up to 4–5 months of utility service charges? An expired proclamation does not place the customer in any better position of paying their utilities if they have not yet returned to work or the business that employed them is now shutting its doors or reducing staff. As a result of these realities, the governor’s latest proclamation addressed the requirement of providing utility bill repayment options.

Initially, Proclamation 20-23.4 included a link to customer support program guidance developed by the governor’s office. This guidance — which has since been removed — outlined specific requirements for utility-based COVID-19 Customer Support programs that would help residential customers maintain access to essential utility services after the proclamation expires.

The guidance asked that all utilities review their existing policies concerning disconnection and reconnection of service, payment arrangements, and the suspension of other fees and/or charges that were discontinued during the proclamation timeline. It also asked that policies and/or program offerings be updated as appropriate to keep vulnerable individuals and households connected to essential services during the economic recovery.

The governor's COVID-19 Utility Customer Support program guidance addresses four (4) specific areas for local government utility review, consideration, and planning under Proclamation 20-23.4:

  • Customer notification
  • Customer Support programs
  • Public information requirements
  • Statewide resources

MRSC — in cooperation with the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and the Washington Association of Sewer & Water Districts (WASWD) — provided a free webinar on April 21, Managing a Public Utility During the COVID-19 Pandemic, that offered a good overview of the state orders, discussed payment plan options, local programs that were being implemented, and recommendations on ways to best manage your utility during these challenging times. Many of the items discussed in the webinar meet the requirements of the new COVID-19 Utility Customer Support program guidance.

While the governor’s office has temporarily removed the guidance for developing COVID-19 Customer Support programs until they are able to work with parties such as AWC, WASWD, public utility districts and others, it is anticipated that the primary objective of the guidance will remain, and this provides us with a sufficient understanding of the basic requirements, which we will discuss in this blog post. The following are recommended steps to help utilities meet these basic requirements.

Review Your Current Customer Support Programs

Many local government utilities already have customer support programs in place that provide payment plan options for customers who meet certain criteria. MRSC’s webpage Utility Discounts and Financial Assistance Programs provides general guidance for developing a program as well as examples of financial assistance programs adopted by jurisdictions throughout the state.

When reviewing your current utility financial assistance programs keep in mind that the governor’s original guidance requirements looked for the following (note: it is anticipated that these requirements will remain in the rewrite):

  • Customers should be able to maintain access to essential utility services.
  • Utilities should offer long-term payment arrangements that are tailored to individual customer needs.
  • Utilities should assist customers in gaining access to assistance funds for existing and future bills. 
  • Utilities should notify all individual customers with outstanding balances of the availability of assistance funds.

For those utilities that already have customer assistance programs, we recommend that you review and focus on the criteria determining who qualifies for assistance. Some programs will need to broaden this acceptance criteria to include any individuals who have been impacted by the pandemic but who may normally not qualify under the program’s current low-income or senior low-income criteria. Our COVID-19 Small Business and Tenant Assistant Programs webpage provides utility information and sample financial assistance programs that have been adopted by local utilities during the pandemic.

For those utilities that do not have a formal financial assistance program in place, it will be important to determine what type of program that you can support and how this program can meet the four specific areas outlined above. In formulating a new program, utilities will need to consider many issues, such as length of extended payment programs, financial capabilities of providing these programs, or whether there are outside assistance programs, such as the Department of Commerce’s Disaster Cash Assistance Program (DCAP), that the district can direct its customers to.

Working with your customers under these circumstances will require documentation and agreed-upon arrangements to facilitate timely collections.

Conduct Customer Outreach

The governor’s guidance wants to ensure that customers have access to information about available, utility-based customer support programs. Most local government public utilities have public-facing websites that provide information on their programs. If your utility has not posted customer support program information online, you will want to make sure that the information is made available to the public by July 10, 2020. This ensures that your impacted residential customers will be provided with sufficient time to both plan for and make arrangements with your utility desk to ensure continuation of services after July 28, which is the end of the current proclamation.

For those smaller jurisdictions that do not have websites, it will be important to establish an alternate form of communication to assure that your customers have received the customer support program information and understand any requirements for enrolling in such programs. One recommendation is to promote your customer support program to residential customers via bill inserts or by mailing special notices. Posting informational notices on the door of your agency and/or working with your local library or other community-based organization to distribute this required information are additional recommended options.

Agencies should follow their normal protocols for connecting with delinquent customers, and it will also be critical to communicate any customer support options to these clients at the same time.  

Final Thoughts

The remaining requirements within the governor’s initial guidance document address COVID-19 Utility Customer Support program accessibility: That such a program be accessible via a public-facing website and that the link be easily accessible from a statewide resource, such as the Department of Commerce’s Electric and Natural Gas Rate Payer Assistance Resource. Initial guidance additionally required that program information for water utilities be submitted to the Department of Health (DOH) and energy utilities submit their program links to the Department of Commerce (DOC). The Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) Consumer Protection Help Line will serve as a single point of contact for all utility customers with questions about bill assistance programs throughout the state. These areas of the guidance are being reconsidered through discussions with interested parties, and revisions (if any) will be released in the near future.

In the interim it will be crucial to notify and enroll those customers in arrears into your support program for extended payment plans or to provide resources that will assure continued service options are available to them. Communication with those customers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic will be an important component of meeting the intent of the governor’s requirement for customer support beyond the July proclamation expiration of July 28, 2020.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Toni Nelson

Toni Nelson joined MRSC in 2014 as the finance consultant. She has worked in local government finance since 1990 and was previously the “Small Cities Specialist” with the State Auditor’s Office (SAO), Clerk Treasurer for the Town of Twisp, as well as an independent financial consultant working with small local government across the state. Toni's area of expertise is "Cash Basis" accounting and reporting, budgeting, and the financial responsibilities and challenges of smaller local government.

Toni is a board member of the Washington Finance Officers Association (WFOA) and longtime member of the WFOA Education committee. While with SAO, Toni wrote the Small Cities handbook and she annually prepares the MRSC - Budget Suggestions publication. Most recently Toni co-authored the comprehensive update of the Revenue Guides for WA Cities, Towns and Counties, in 2019.

Toni conducts workshops on local government financial reporting, budgeting, and the essential duties of finance staff in smaller jurisdictions, with an emphasis on cash basis accounting and the challenges of small local government.

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