By Matt Martinez
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Citing coronavirus concerns, the Public Service Commission voted Thursday to extend the moratorium on utility shut-offs to Oct. 1.
The 2-1 vote mirrored the commission’s July 24 decision, with Chairwoman Rebecca Cameron Valcq and Commissioner Tyler Huebner voting to extend the moratorium and Commissioner Ellen Nowak voting not to.
Valcq pointed to COVID-19 numbers in the state, with positive cases in Wisconsin doubling since the PSC’s last vote.
“When I look at the data and I view it holistically, I don’t think we have a choice,” Valcq said.
Nowak said she’s worried about the precedent the commission is setting with Thursday’s decision. She said she favors more targeted measures instead of a broad solution.
“I think everywhere you turn, there’s already an answer,” Nowak said. “Now applying a very broad exemption to the entire state no matter how much money you make is the wrong answer.”
The commission will vote to consider extending or ending the moratorium on Sept. 17. Extending the moratorium into November would coincide with the annual winter moratorium, effectively preventing utility cutoffs until April 2021.
The moratorium, which went into effect because of health and economic concerns from COVID-19, prevents utilities from disconnecting customers who cannot pay their bills.
Before Thursday’s vote, leaders in Milwaukee said the moratorium needed to be extended.
“In light of the twin public health and economic crises facing Wisconsin’s residents, a Commission order allowing disconnections to commence on September 1 would be unjust, unreasonable, and harm the interests of the public,” Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer wrote in an Aug. 10 letter.
Ald. Khalif Rainey, who authored a letter on behalf of the Milwaukee Common Council in July seeking an extension of the moratorium, said utility consumers still needed more time.
“The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, but we’re still in a pandemic,” Rainey said.
The Rev. Dana Kelley, lead organizer for North Side Rising, urges people to call the PSC to voice their concerns. North Side Rising is a nonprofit organization that advocates for residents who live on the North Side.
Kelley said in an interview before the PSC vote that she wants to see the moratorium extended to Nov. 1.
“The PSC is doing their due diligence, but they’re not doing their best,” Kelley said.
Kelley said North Side Rising plans to meet with We Energies to discuss new ways to help those struggling to pay during the pandemic. One idea is to ask the company to create a donation option that would match bills dollar-for-dollar for those in need.
“We’re asking for so little, I think,” Kelley said.
Brendan Conway, a spokesman for We Energies, said in an interview with NNS before the PSC decision that disconnections will remain a last resort for the company.
Conway urged customers to call (800) 842-4565 to set up a payment plan or to ask for energy assistance.
Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said he hopes to see utilities come up with innovative ways to help those struggling. The utility board is a consumer-advocate group that represents the interests of customers.
“We want to see a granular look and analysis of which customers are facing the biggest energy burdens,” Content said before the vote.
Content acknowledges this is not an easy time for utilities, but with more customers experiencing hardships, he thinks the moratorium is the best way forward for now.
“Many people have described this as the tsunami that follows the earthquake,” Content said.