Utility providers in Lewis County are being faced with providing service to accounts with past due bills under an ongoing statewide moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment.
The total utility payments owned by customers in the county totals nearly $1.3 million.
The Lewis County Public Utility District is providing service to 893 customers who would ordinarily be at the “disconnect stage” owing a total of $610,065.
The Centralia Utilities Department is serving 1,084 past due accounts with an overdue balance of $689,755. The past due accounts have not been disconnected since March 2020 due to the statewide moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment.
The Centralia Utility Departments’ overdue accounts include electricity provided by Centralia City Light, water, wastewater and stormwater payments whereas the PUD’s payments are for electricity only. The city of Centralia services 10,236 total utility customers including commercial, residential and accounts with senior discounts.
Gov. Jay Inslee has extended the moratorium on utility disconnections multiple times — the most recent extending it to April 30. Utilities are also required to continue to waive deposits for new customers and all late fees through Oct. 27.
Centralia City Light General Manager M.L. Norton said the city is closely monitoring expenditures “to ensure that each of our utilities continues to supply essential services to our community despite the fiscal challenges that we face.”
“The long-term effects are difficult to quantify because legislation at the national and state levels will have a tremendous effect,” he said.
The PUD has taken action to help support struggling customers by waiving the basic charge in April 2020 — totaling $900,000 — and partnering with the county to distribute $163,000 in federal CARES Act funds in late 2020 to help pay off overdue bills of customers financially impacted by the pandemic.
“We have and will continue to work with customers experiencing hardship to help get them connected to assistance programs,” PUD Public Affairs Manager Willie Painter said, “including those administered by the Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason and Thurston counties. The PUD has and will continue to set up payment plans for customers who are unable to pay their bill.”
Although the 893 past due accounts are a fraction of the 33,000 customers served by the PUD, continuing to supply service to those overdue accounts is not sustainable. The amount of past due accounts is unprecedented for the utility. The PUD will continue to seek out state and federal relief funds that can be used for utility bill assistance.
“Lewis County PUD is owned by its customers and operates as a nonprofit utility. The PUD’s success is our customers’ success and vice versa. We collectively need to get back to a rhythm of normalcy,” Painter said.
Although the moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment could be extended by Inslee again, ultimately customers who do not pay their utility bill are responsible for the outstanding balance.
The PUD has a program called Project Share that is funded through donations from customers looking to support community members and an annual $25,000 PUD contribution. Those funds have been exhausted at this point, but the PUD encourages those looking to support individuals and families struggling with utility bill payments to donate to Project Share.
More information can be found on the PUD’s website — lcpud.org.