APS asked to forgive debt from unpaid bills due to pandemic and hot summer
By: Ryan Randazzo Arizona Republic
Several community groups want Arizona Public Service Co. to forgive about $30 million in debt from customers who have not paid bills during the coronavirus pandemic and heat of summer.
The groups said the record-setting unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented heat this summer have combined to cause severe hardships for families struggling to pay bills.
“What sound like trivial numbers to you is the difference between families keeping food in the fridge, making rent, and keeping the AC on during this record heat,” they said in a letter to APS CEO Jeff Guldner. “We need you to stop raising rates and making life harder for Arizona families — and start doing something to make it better.”
The local Sierra Club chapter; Our Voice, Our Vote; Living United for Change in Arizona; Mi Familia Vota; Arizona Interfaith Power And Light and Chispa, a branch of the League of Conservation Voters, all signed the letter to the state’s biggest utility asking for debt forgiveness.
APS officials said Monday they had not yet received the letter but that the company has tried to help customers struggling financially.
“Our employees provide Arizonans with an essential product and service. With many customers using more of that product in the heat, our focus is on helping customers know their options to save and how to save the most on the APS plan they choose,” APS spokeswoman Jenna Rowell said via email.
“We acted early in the pandemic to provide additional customer and community support. We encourage any customers struggling to pay or whose financial circumstances have changed to check in with us as they may qualify for bill assistance ranging from a $100, one-time bill credit to an ongoing 25% discount off their energy use.”
Bills accumulate during suspension
APS in the spring agreed to suspend shutting off power to customers who could not pay because they were affected by the pandemic, and then summer arrived, meaning the company could not disconnect customers because of a rule state regulators put in place last year.
So, thousands of customers have racked up hundreds of dollars in debt in unpaid utility bills.
Customers accumulated about $26.5 million in unpaid residential bills at APS as of early August, and are likely to continue increasing that balance owed into October, when disconnections could resume.
APS last summer stopped shutting off customers for nonpayment while the state regulators considered permanent changes to the rules regarding shutoffs. When the moratorium ended in October, 96,000 customers had unpaid bills totaling more than $30 million with APS, the company reported.
Those customers were put on a four-month payment plan to settle the debt with their regular monthly bills. About half defaulted on those payments at some point.
Today, most customers who racked up debt last year have paid and are no longer in debt to the utility, but 28,000 have yet to get current with the company nearly a year later, APS reported.
Some consumer advocates are asking APS to just forgive the debt this year.
Groups: APS profits could cover debt
They note that not only did APS earnings soar this summer with the record heat, but that a consultant’s report last year indicated APS may have earned $28.4 million more than regulators intended for the company. APS officials disagreed that the company was earning more than authorized by regulators.
“While Arizonans are struggling, APS is making more money than ever,” they wrote in the letter to Guldner. “In your latest quarterly report, you tout making $48 million more in profits than this same quarter last year because of hotter-than-normal temperatures. That means you could decide today to wipe out all of the debt — and still make more in profits than you did last year.”
When utility regulators last year ordered APS to file a new rate case with them so they could review whether APS was earning more than it is authorized, the company responded with a request for a $184 million rate increase, raising household bills by 5.4%.
That request is still on the table, and Arizona regulators are taking public comment on that request Tuesday night in a telephonic meeting.
Rowell said the rate request is a separate issue from current customer debt, because rate requests are intended to recover expenses utilities incurred in the past — in this case, prior to when it was filed last year.
“As with all rate cases, we are seeking recovery of investments previously made, including investments in generation facilities that are running faster and cleaner this summer, hard at work keeping the power on for customers,” Rowell said.
The letter urging APS to forgive the debt was timed to coincide with the public-comment session.
The meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Those who want to listen in can dial 1–866–705–2554. The pass code to speak is: 241497. The pass code to only listen is: 2414978.
The meeting also will livestream online at www.azcc.gov.