CLEVELAND — Tuesday marks the end of a temporary halt on utility disconnects for customers of Cleveland Water and Cleveland Public Power. Implemented by Mayor Frank Jackson in mid-March, the moratoriums were designed to defray the financial struggle for thousands of families because of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to numbers released by the city, more than 100,000 customers of both Cleveland Water and Cleveland Public Power were delinquent on their bills as of Nov. 9.
The city said there were 89,470 Cleveland Water customers behind on their utility bills with an average of $481.02 owed. As many as 28,545 Cleveland Public Power customers are behind on their monthly bills with an average amount of $281.39 owed.
The sheer volume of delinquent customers and the end of the moratorium have prompted surges in the number of people calling in to the United Way of Greater Cleveland's 211 system as well as the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
"It's typical that there is a surge in requests for assistance in the winter months. This year it's different because of COVID-19. People have higher bills. There is assistance for them but it's much more difficult for them to get appointments right now," said attorney Anne Reece, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland's utility law expert. "There's actually been an uptick in the number of calls that we're seeing for tenant issues. The number two issue for tenants behind rents is whether they can afford to pay their utility bills."
Although both Cleveland Water and Cleveland Public Power have been offering delinquent customers financial relief by way of extended payment plans, customers have due process rights before utilities are disconnected, Reece said.
"A lot of people don't know the rights they have. If they have a medical condition, they have a right to request a medical certification," Reece said. "They have a right to notice. They are supposed to be notified in advance. They have a right to request a hearing before the board so they can bring up the issues. For example, if they have a medical issue and they requested a certification, they can bring that up and request certain payment plans and certain payment waivers for times."
According to the Legal Aid Society, Cleveland Water is required by city ordinance to send a letter of possible disconnection at least 15 days prior to shutting off service. A utility customer is required to submit a request for a Water Review Board hearing within 10 days of receiving the water shut off notice. There are similar due process rights for Cleveland Public Power customers.
"I would also like [customers] to know there is a lot of assistance right now," Reece said. "I would tell them to take action. Call 211 or call Cleveland Housing Partners and call them as many times as they have to. I know it's very difficult to get an appointment right now. You can also apply for their help online."
Councilman Brian Kazy, who heads the city council's utility committee, released a statement Tuesday afternoon urging delinquent customers to reach out to Cleveland Public Power and Cleveland Water as soon as possible.
"I know there is much consternation about a December 1st date for shutting off utilities to residents who are behind in payments. Obviously, customers of Cleveland Public Power, which serves a portion of the city, and of the Cleveland Water Department which serves more than 70 communities in Northeast Ohio, who are behind on their bills are very concerned," Kazy said in a statement. "But recent notices do not mean customers are facing an immediate shut-off. First of all, both CPP and Cleveland Water are working with customers who are behind on their bills. Secondly, Council is working closely with the Jackson administration to ensure that no resident loses electricity or water during the pandemic or during winter months."
For customers of regulated, investor-owned utilities, there is what's called a winter reconnect order. For one payment of $175, a customer can establish, maintain, or restore utility service along with a one-time reconnection fee not to exceed $36. According to PUCO, the winter reconnects order, which runs through early April, can be split between regulated utility companies -- like water and electric -- if both services have been disconnected or are threatened to be disconnected.
Customers requesting new natural gas or electric service, who have no previous balance with their utility, may establish service under the winter reconnect order by paying $175, rather than paying the required security deposit, PUCO said. Such customers may have the remaining balance of the security deposit added to their next month’s bill.
"You can also request assistance to get $175 from applying for HEAP," Reece said. "Now we have CARES Act funds, which is an additional amount of money that wasn't available before but it's only available this year through December 31st."
The CARES Act assistance is available through CHN Housing Partners and The Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland. Additional questions and answers can be found on the Legal Aid Society's website.