Commentary, COVID-19, News

Washington Post story: Crisis in NC utilities service and billing shows desperate need for more federal aid

Be sure to check out an article published this morning in the Washington Post entitled In North Carolina, unpaid electric and water bills are driving families and cities to the financial brink.”

In it, reporter Tony Romm highlights the hugely problematic situation that is coming to the fore in our state as two important public policy issues collide: the end of our state’s moratorium on utility shutoffs and the failure of Congress to deliver more desperately needed assistance — both to struggling households and local governments. As Romm reports:

“As many as 1 million families in North Carolina have fallen behind on their electric, water and sewage bills, threatening residents and their cities with severe financial hardship unless federal lawmakers act to approve more emergency aid.

The trouble stems from the widespread economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus, which has left millions of workers out of a job and struggling to cover their monthly costs. Together, they’ve been late or missed a total of $218 million in utility payments between April 1 and the end of June, according to data released recently by the state, nearly double the amount in arrears at this time last year.

In some cases, cities that own or operate their own utilities have been forced to absorb these losses, creating a dire situation in which the government’s attempt to save people from the financial brink instead has pushed municipal coffers to their own breaking point….

The predicament has presented unique budget challenges throughout North Carolina, while illustrating the consequences of a cash crunch plaguing the entire country. State and federal leaders have extended a range of coronavirus relief programs since March to try to help people through the pandemic. But the money is limited and restricted — and it’s not clear whether more help from Congress is on the way — creating a crisis in which the nation’s economic woes are outpacing some of the aid programs adopted to combat them.”

And, of course, even with the end of the moratorium on shutoffs, utility providers — particularly struggling small towns — will not be much better off if there’s simply no money to squeeze from unemployed customers.

As Paul Meyer of the N.C. league of Municipalities told Romm: “We are entering a phase where the utilities [may] be able to shut off power, but what was propping up people’s economic lives, the unemployment benefits and Cares Act support, won’t be there.” (Click here to hear an interview I did recently with Meyer in which he argued forcefully for a package of federal aid to cities.)

The bottom line: As with so many other aspects of the coronavirus recession, the federal government simply must step up to the plate and do much more if Americans and their local governments are to avoid huge, and even existential, financial crises. Strong and public action from North Carolina’s congressional delegation — especially from Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — is needed right now.

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