Utility shutoff grace period may be extended again in New Jersey
New Jersey residents who are way behind on their utility bills may get another lifeline.
Disconnection notices and actual service stoppages were starting to hit customers last week when a shutoff moratorium officially ended, but both houses of the New Jersey Legislature are set to vote Thursday on a proposed law that would extend protection, at least for folks who are trying to do something about their past-due bills.
"We need to just make sure that we're getting people more time. Otherwise, we're going to see a massive sweep of the lights going out," said Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, D-Essex, a sponsor of the measure and chair of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
The full Assembly and Senate are taking up legislation that essentially gives customers up to a 60-day protection window, as long as they apply for utility assistance by June 15.
The bill would also nullify disconnections that may have already occurred since the end of the moratorium, given the customer has since applied for assistance. Under the bill, state agencies that administer utility assistance programs can't take longer than 90 days to approve or reject an application.
"We've heard from many people, including recently, that they were unaware of assistance until the last month or so," said Renee Koubiadis, anti-poverty program director for New Jersey Citizen Action. "We know anecdotally from residents across the state that the application process can be cumbersome."
When reached for comment, the New Jersey Utilities Association said its member companies are facing a significant tally of overdue bills. Despite there being new levels of assistance available from federal funds, the association said, customer participation in assistance programs has been low.
"Your utility wants to work with you, so please don't hesitate to contact them and find a program that can help," the association said.
According to the Department of Community Affairs, an increase in applications for utility assistance has spiked since March 15, when all grace periods expired.
"When we receive a substantially complete application, the processing time is typically within 30 days," DCA said.