CLEVELAND — Joyce Boyd is a Cleveland mother who lost her son and is urging the City of Cleveland and local utility companies to provide more resources and information to residents in an effort to slow down utility shutoffs due to payment issues this coming fall and winter.
Boyd's son, 50-year-old Michael Anthony Hall, lost his life when, according to county records, he accidentally died from carbon monoxide poisoning, while trying to stay warm in his running vehicle back in February.
Boyd said her her son was dealing with financial issues and had the utilities in his apartment interrupted, causing a lack of heat.
“It’s real important. I really don't think they should shut it off, not in the winter time anyway," Boyd said. “I love him very, very much, and I miss him very, very much, and I hate that that happened to him. It was terrible and for my son to be one of the ones that passed away, I think it’s horrible.”
Community groups End Poverty Now and Utilities for All remembered Hall and seven other Cuyahoga County residents the groups said, according to county records, died when they lost utilities in February.
End Poverty Now Director Larry Bressler told News 5 he's hoping Cleveland Public Power will improve its website, offer an appeal process for consumers facing shutoff, and improve its customer service call center.
“Utilities we believe are a right, a basic human right, and if we believe that, we need to be doing all that we can to make sure people are not being shutoff," Bressler said. "The Cleveland Public Power website has very little information in terms of how people can catch-up on their bills if they’ve fallen behind, there’s no information on there if people have serious health problems. In terms of utilities being shut-off there should be an appeal process, by law there’s an appeal process, but it doesn’t exist.”
Bressler continued, "And their customer service representatives not only have been overwhelmed, depending who you talk to you get different responses, there’s no consistent response.”
Cleveland Public Power responded and said it will continue to offer many resources to prevent shutoffs.
It issued the following statement:
Cleveland Public Power voluntarily suspended electric disconnections for non-payment beginning on March 13, 2020, as part of Mayor Jackson’s Proclamation of Civil Emergency to help customers during the coronavirus pandemic. This suspension was in advance of Governor DeWine and the Ohio EPA’s order on March 31, 2020, and continued well beyond the state order, which ended on July 1, 2020.
Between March 13 and December 1, 2020 we restored service to over 136 customers. While we resumed collection activity on December 1, 2020, we have not resumed service disconnections. When we do resume severance activity we are taking a tiered approach to disconnections by starting with accounts that have the largest balances.
We have been and continue to diligently notify customers of their past due account status on their monthly statements. We provide options for assistance on our website and through social media so that they receive plenty of notice in addition to our regular multi-notice procedures.
Customers who have outstanding account balances or are having trouble making bill payments should contact us at 216-664-4600 as soon as possible. There are a few financial relief tools available, including the federally-funded Summer HEAP program that will provide funds directly to CPP on behalf of the consumer.
Other assistance programs, including COVID-19 relief funds, are available to eligible customers through our partners at CHN Housing Partners (216-774-2349) and Step Forward (216-696-9077). This information can also be found on our website www.cpp.org/Assistance-programs.
Don Bryant, community leader with Utilities for All, told News 5 the City of Cleveland and all of it's mayoral candidates also need to do more to prevent utility shutoffs as we head toward the end of 2021.
“We should have a cold weather plan from our mayoral candidates, we haven’t heard anything from our council," Bryant said. “We need a foul weather plan for an entire year, we’ve never had that for our city. We also need to pass a winter reconnect order, and we also need a moratorium on shutoffs.”
In response to our story, other major Northeast Ohio utilities offered resources to help consumers in financial distress keep their services during the in gong pandemic.
Dominion Energy issued the following statement on its payment plans:
Of course, we urge customers to contact us immediately at 1-800-362-7557 if they know they are going to have difficulty paying their bills to discuss the payment plans and energy assistance which best meets their individual needs.
Dominion Energy Payment Plans: If customers are having trouble paying their bills, the company offers both short-term payment extensions and long-term payment plans to help residential and commercial customers manage their balances and catch up over time. Customers may qualify for one of several Dominion Energy or State of Ohio programs. Dominion offerings include:
- Budget Billing allows customers to pay a fixed budget amount each month, based on annual gas usage. Dominion Energy Ohio periodically reviews the budget amount and adjusts it, if necessary, so that the customer will not have a high balance or large credit at the end of the budget year. Customers should call the company for more information.
- Budget Plus: The company offers additional flexibility for customers who enroll in our Budget Plus payment plan. Under Budget Plus, we are now allowing customers to pay their budget payment, plus an amount against their past-due balance over a maximum of 12 months. Previously, the length was limited to 9 months. Please contact us to discuss whether additional payment options may be available.
- Current-Plus Plan: Customers with a past-due balance can pay their current monthly bill, plus an installment of the total account balance at the time they enroll in the plan that spreads the balance over multiple months.
- The One-Ninth Plan allows customers to pay one-ninth of their total account balance each month plus a calculated budget amount.
- Under the One-Third Winter Heating Plan, customers pay one-third of their total account balance each month for bills that include gas used from November 1, 2020, through April 15, 2021.
- Short-Term Extension grants up to five additional days to pay before the next bill date.
Government Energy Assistance: Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus (PIPP Plus) offer year-round assistance: To qualify for this special payment plan, developed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, a customer’s yearly gross household income can be up to 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Under PIPP Plus, participating customers may maintain their natural gas service by paying 6 percent of their total gross monthly household income, or $10, whichever is greater. PIPP Plus has special benefits for participating customers. Each time customers make their required PIPP Plus monthly payments in full by the due date, Dominion Energy Ohio will credit their accounts for the rest of that month’s current charges, plus a one-twenty-fourth credit toward their prior account balances. After 24 months of on-time and in-full PIPP Plus payments, their accounts will become current.
The PIPP Plus maximum yearly household gross income levels for the 2020-2021 program year are: $19,140 for one person; $25,860 for two people; $32,580 for three; $39,300 for four; $46,020 for five; $52,740 for six; $59,460 for seven; and $66,180 for eight. Add $6,720 for each additional person.
FirstEnergy also responded to our story with the following statement concerning utility shut-off prevention:
FirstEnergy has been committed to keeping the lights on for customers during the coronavirus pandemic. On March 13, 2020, all FirstEnergy utilities, including those in Ohio, suspended electric service shutoffs for customers with past-due balances. Throughout the pandemic, we worked with customers who were struggling with their bills to offer payment plans with longer terms and connect them with a variety of assistance programs to help them manage through the crisis. We took many proactive steps to communicate with customers about their payment options, including field outreach following COVID-19 protocols to inform customers with arrearages about assistance programs and extended payment plans; news releases and media outreach to promote payment options; and a Public Service Announcement-style advertising campaign using traditional and social media to help customers learn more about available assistance programs and payment arrangements.
Following approval from the PUCO in September 2020, FirstEnergy resumed service disconnections in Ohio in October 2020. We continue to encourage customers who are having difficulty making ends meet to contact their utility to enroll in payment plans or bill assistance programs. Establishing an affordable payment arrangement or obtaining assistance can help keep balances manageable during this difficult time. Customer service representatives are available to assist residential customers with manageable payment arrangements and can provide customers with information on needs-based assistance programs.
We understand many customers are still experiencing the financial impacts of the pandemic and are unable to pay their full electric bill. We urge those individuals to contact our customer service team at 1-800-589-3101 or visit www.firstenergycorp.com/billassist [firstenergycorp.com] to see what payment plans and bill assistance programs are available to them. The last thing we want to do is disconnect a customer’s electric service when it can be avoided by simply contacting our customer service team and establishing payment arrangements.