Ratepayers launch protests against utilities resuming disconnections

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith
For business

(September 2, 2020)

Texans have launched protests as utilities resume disconnections.

Bryan Texas Utilities (BTU) and College Station Utilities resumed cut-offs and charging late fees in mid-July after a four-month pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. The move angered many residents, some of whom launched protests against the companies.

Texans in the community called their demonstration the “No cut-offs” protest and urged participants to wear cut-offs as a show of opposition to the decision by the two public utilities.

“They’re supposed to be a public utility and the role of a public utility is to serve the community and they like to use the word service but if we’re not taking care of the poorest people in our community then that’s a lie,” argues Dan Kiniry.

BTU responded by stressing that support is in place for the approximately 2,000 customers who are behind in their bills by more than 30 days, which they can obtain by contacting the utility or the Salvation Army.

However, protesters say this is inadequate. “Right now there are 80 people with payment plans set up, so what that should tell us as a community is that plan of just having them contact you is obviously not working. You obviously don’t have solutions for them that are for real people in real situations,” says Kiniry.

Kiniry and other protesters are calling for a suspension of cut-offs until there are no new COVID-19 cases in the area. They also want a permanent end to disconnection fees, reconnection charges, and other deposit payments charged when a service is disconnected.

“City hall can eliminate these penalties pretty easily,” he explains. “City Ordinance 2226 says families who get disconnected have to pay these large amounts of money.”

Utility wants to return to “business as usual”

“At some point, it’s got to come to an end, and we know that the governor of Texas wants to get back to business as usual as soon as possible and this is simply business as usual,” said Ken Dupre, an accounts manager at BTU.

But Carlos Espina, one of the protest co-organizers, believes the decision will harm those who are least able to cope.

“One of the big messages of the protest today was about not making this about ourselves, but those in our community who are going to be hurt by this,” Espina said. “And just imagine your kid not being able to do their online classes without electricity, or you having to spend a summer in Texas without any A/C. Just think about those who are going to be affected and sympathize with them.”

Showing that many people agree with Espina, protesters have managed to raise over $17,000 through a GoFundMe page to assist ratepayers who have fallen behind with their bills.

A broader problem across Texas

Although the Public Utilities Commission of Texas formally adopted a regulation in March designed to prevent people who had lost their income due to the pandemic from being cut off, it proved difficult to implement. Demand was so high that many people struggled to reach the PUC to sign on to the program. Additionally, others lacked the money even to pay a lower contribution as part of a revised payment plan.

This was what happened to Carly Eaves and her family, who were told to pay $90 to get on a payment plan. “I spent all of our money on food,” recalls Eaves, who was laid off from her job as a server. “That’s all that I could do. For a family of five with no income, we didn’t have enough for anything else.”

Even for those who managed to get on the PUC’s program, its prohibition of shutoffs expired on July 17.

Some cities and counties take action

In some areas, cities and counties took measures in addition to the PUC order to block shutoffs. In El Paso, for example, the declaration by the city of a state of emergency until early September meant that utility shutoffs were prohibited.

El Paso’s declaration noted explicitly, “To the extent allowed by law, no local utility shall discontinue the provision of cable, internet, water, gas, waste removal and electrical services to a residential or commercial customer for lack of payment while this ordinance is in effect.”

Texas residents participating in the protests hope that their action will cause the city council to change course and put a temporary ban on cut-offs like El Paso did. At a second protest held one week after the first demonstration, a group gathered outside city hall to urge local officials to put the issue of removing disconnection fees on the agenda of the next council meeting.

 

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views and at the Canadian Labour Institute.

[Ahmad Aburob]/Shutterstock