PSC Rejects Petition to Protect Florida Families

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PSC Rejects Petition to Protect Florida Families

On Tuesday October 6, the Florida Public Service Commission voted unanimously to deny a petition for emergency rulemaking which would have protected Florida families from facing utility service disconnection as a result of non-payment for an additional 90 days. This petition was put forward by Connected in Crisis coalition partner League of United Latin American Citizens, represented by Earthjustice, and several utility customers who stand to be impacted by service disconnection.

Joining my fellow members of the Connected In Crisis coalition, I gave the following comments: 

“Hello commissioners, my name is Zac Cosner, I am the Energy and Climate Policy advocate for Florida Conservation Voters and I am speaking today on behalf of the Connected in Crisis coalition, a coalition of non-profit organizations and community leaders dedicated to the principle that no family should be forced to go without power in the midst of this pandemic crisis. 

You heard comments from some of our coalition partners just a moment ago – Catalyst Miami, Organize Florida, New Florida Majority, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Additional partners include Florida Conservation Voters, ReThink Energy Florida, The CLEO Institute, Sierra Club Florida, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, and Solar United Neighbors as well as the petitioner League of United Latin American Citizens and their counsel, Earthjustice.

For months, our coalition members across the state have petitioned Florida’s utilities, their governor, and the Public Service Commission to protect Florida’s families from having their access to power severed. We’ve called for utility companies to establish arrearage management programs that actually meet the needs of Florida residents, and employ debt forgiveness for their most vulnerable customers. We’ve heard from customers across the state who have found themselves unable to pay for their utilities as a result of unemployment, have been unable to provide the upfront costs associated with many of the arrearage management plans offered by utilities. 

We’d like to offer a bird’s eye view, and express why we believe the programs which have been offered by utilities fall short of what Floridians need. 

Florida’s mismanagement of this crisis has truly set us apart from the rest of the country. Most states in the U.S. have advanced some form of protection for customers at risk of being disconnected from their power as a result of the pandemic. Florida was one of only 15 states that chose not to offer protection.

We now have a situation where several states with far lower caseloads of COVID-19 are continuing to prohibit utility disconnections, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, and others while Floridians are subjected to disconnection in spite of our state continuing to experience approximately 2000 new cases and 100 deaths every day.  

Those most vulnerable to the potentially deadly impacts of utility disconnection are also those most difficult to reach and who might have difficulty accessing resources. Households suffering from the impacts of chronic poverty, non-English speaking households, and undocumented people may not have access to the minimal relief offered by utilities

These families should not be sacrificed in the interest of making highly profitable utility companies whole. 

Utility companies claim they need the ability to disconnect people because it is an incentive for people to participate in their arrearage management plans. The logic of such a statement is reprehensible. Severing families from necessary power renders their homes unlivable, forces families into unnecessary misery, and potentially precipitates avoidable deaths. Not to mention the impacts which casting people into housing insecurity may have on the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

While there may be a few who can pay and will take advantage of protections offered to all Floridians, there are many more who are legitimately struggling. A small number of people potentially taking advantage of the system should not be used to justify the infliction of widespread misery

The representative from TECO said they needed this right to disconnect at the July 29 hearing, citing that the dearth of participants in their program was a result of their inability to disconnect people.

The programs utilities are offering clearly aren’t enough to meet the needs of Florida residents. They certainly don’t meet the best practices established by organizations such as the National Consumer Law Center, and as many others have pointed out, there are too many customers falling through the cracks

These claims become particularly absurd in light of the fact that in order to even participate in TECO’s program, a customer would have to pay 10% – 30% of their unpaid bills upfront to qualify for an extension period that would last nine months at most – far shorter than the one year recommended by the National Consumer Law Center. 

We should not be relying on punitive measures when Floridians are already suffering, and when these punitive measures could lead to the further exacerbation of this massive public health crisis. Utilities could easily provide incentives for participation, or automatic enrollment instead.

As the Office of Public Counsel said on July 29, no industry has been so perfectly insulated from the impacts of the pandemic as Florida’s utilities. Customers in the state of Florida do not have the option to switch providers if they don’t like the way that their utilities have managed this crisis. They are a captive customer base, and it is up to the PSC to ensure that the utilities serve the welfare of their customers.

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Other members of the coalition stepped up to offer similar comments, and speak up for the people whom utilities and the current Public Service Commission seem eager to leave behind.

The fight to ensure energy security for Floridians throughout this crisis, and ensure that Florida residents are not burdened by excessive utility debt after the pandemic threat has subsided has brought together many different organizations and communities under a common cause. We are grateful for our partners and determined to continue fighting for Florida families.

The fight is not over. Even in this rejection of our petition, we are continuing to let the utilities know that we are holding them accountable, we are ready to make our voices heard, and we will apply what pressure we can to make sure that the people are heard.

Soon, the utilities will be coming before the Public Service Commission to determine acceptable utility rates for the upcoming year. If we know anything about our powerful investor-owned utilities, we know that they will be seeking to offset as many costs as possible onto their customers (while continuing to line the pockets of investors and executives like Nextera Energy’s James Robo, who could eliminate the outstanding customer debt of 45,000 households with a 50% cut in compensation).

We will be there on the frontlines of this fight and we will remain steadfast, more united than ever.

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