A government agency representing Indiana utility customers has asked the state’s regulator to investigate requiring utilities to report disconnection data for a second time in 25 months.
William Fine, the state’s utility consumer counselor, filed a request June 23 with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to adopt a reporting mandate for regulated utilities with more than 8,000 customer accounts through 2024. Fine wants commissioners to make utilities report the number of customer accounts delinquent for at least 60 days and the balances on those accounts; residential customers on arranged payments and those accounts’ balances; as well as the numbers of disconnections, reconnections and nonpayment notices.
In May 2020, the Utility Regulatory Commission, at the request of the Utility Consumer Counselor’s office, asked 10 investor-owned utilities to send it a larger amount of data each month, most of it backdated to October 2019.
“At that time, we knew that Hoosier ratepayers were under a lot of financial strain, mostly due to the economic disruptions that were going on [because of COVID-19] and the jobs that were shut down,” Fine told The Journal Gazette. “People weren’t getting any money in at all, and we thought it was necessary at that time for the commission to begin requiring and maintaining a record of arrearages and disconnections so that we could determine what, if anything, would be required to help people get through that crisis.”
Ultimately, as the COVID pandemic wound down, arrearages and disconnections stabilized and the May 2020 order expired. Since then, the Utility Consumer Counselor’s office has been watching for a possible return of COVID’s economic effects.
Instead, the consumer counselor has found inflation and higher natural gas prices leading to larger utility bills. On Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report on June inflation. It found prices soared by 9.1% compared to a year ago. The energy index rose 7.5% compared with May, and it’s up 41.6% for the year, the largest 12-month increase since April 1980, the Washington Post reported.
“It’s general knowledge that a lot of people are suffering with high gasoline prices, high utility bills, cost of food is going up, things like that,” Fine said. “So we thought, the only way you can really measure that kind of thing is to reinstitute the kind of metrics that were kept during COVID to keep track of arrearages, to keep track of disconnections. Then we can make a data-driven response as to what would be appropriate to help people out, to be sure that there is a problem and it’s not just anecdotal for a few remote cases.”
Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, Indiana’s oldest and largest consumer and environmental advocacy organization, believes the tranche of data utilities provided the Utility Regulatory Commission during the pandemic is vital information for consumers. He says utilities should be sending the commission such data on a permanent basis.
“How can we assess whether or not utility bills are ‘affordable’ if we are not collecting and analyzing the data on an ongoing basis?” Olson asked. “We need consistent and long-term data to observe the trends in data points like arrearages, disconnect notices, disconnections and defaults.”
The Citizens Action Coalition has advocated Olson’s position for years, both with the Utility Regulatory Commission and the Indiana General Assembly. In 2017, Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, working with the coalition, introduced Senate Bill 67. It would have required utilities to submit annual consumer reports to the commission, but the bill didn’t receive a hearing.
It’s disingenuous for decision-makers to speak of “affordability” when it comes to the costs of utility service, yet display no curiosity or interest in arming themselves with data to inform their decisions. Utilities should be required to share arrearage and disconnection data with Indiana’s Utility Regulatory Commission on a monthly and annual basis.