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.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission, the state’s governing body for utilities, voted unanimously on March 18 to allow the moratorium on utility disconnections to expire on April 15.
The moratorium, which has been in place since April, was enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the economy.
Over 93,000 homes and 4,000 businesses could face disconnection, according to reports from utilities statewide.
Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, urged those who are behind on their payments to attempt to make a plan with their utility providers. If We Energies is your provider, you can call (800) 842-4565.
If an agreement cannot be reached, the Public Service Commission has a program that will help negotiate a payment plan for consumers. Those who use the program must arrange a plan with their utilities first. You can call (800) 225-7729 or (608) 266-2001 to contact the commission.
The Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services also offers energy assistance through UMOS and Community Advocates. You can schedule an appointment, apply online or call (414) 270-4653.
The amount of energy assistance you receive will be determined by your income and energy costs. These requirements can be found on the county’s website.
Amy Jahns, a spokeswoman for We Energies, urged customers to reach out as soon as possible to discuss payment plans and other options. before the moratorium was lifted. The earlier customers reach out, the better their chances for addressing the problem, she said.
“Call us, and call us now,” Jahns said. “Waiting is not going to be beneficial.”
Jahns said that less than 1% of We Energies residential customers are at risk of disconnection, and that “disconnection always has been and always will be a last resort.”
Jahns said there are different payment plans and strategies to help bridge the gap and We Energies can also help connect customers with financial assistance. The best number to call is (800) 242-9137.
Content said in an ideal world, the moratorium would have continued until the pandemic was over. But he hoped an influx of dollars from recent federal legislation, like the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, could help those facing disconnection.
Programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program have received increased funding throughout the pandemic, and Public Service Commission chairwoman Rebecca Cameron Valcq said during last month’s meeting that the commission hoped to steer federal dollars toward consumers.
Dana Kelley, health care equity co-op coordinator at Citizen Action of Wisconsin and civic engagement organizer at North Side Rising, urged consumers not to make arrangements they cannot keep.
Kelley said she is particularly concerned about children returning to school. She said if utilities are turned off and they cannot maintain their personal hygiene, there’s “no way to keep them from becoming super-spreaders.”
“This is not people not wanting to pay their bills,” Kelley said. “This is people just trying to survive, and it’s set up for them to fail. This is people just trying to keep their lights on.”