July 24, 2020
ST. PAUL — Carla McElmury was already struggling to pay for her utilities when she lost her job.
Having taken time off in late 2019 to heal from an operation to remove excess skin, the result of an earlier gastric bypass surgery, she was no longer able to afford her gas bill. When the Good Earth Village retreat center in Spring Valley, where she returned to work as a housekeeper in January, laid her off because of the coronavirus pandemic, she fell behind on her water and electricity bills, too.
By July, she owed the city of Spring Valley roughly $1,500.
The city had publicly pledged to not shut off late-paying customers’ power in light of the pandemic’s economic toll. Yet McElmury received a disconnection notice in the mail anyway.
“It’s not just me either. I know quite a few people who got the same notices I did,” she said in a phone interview.
Ultimately, the city did not turn McElmury’s lights off, nor will it turn off anybody else’s, Spring Valley Utilities office manager Kristen Beck said. But it will continue mailing disconnection notices.
Other municipal utilities have been less lenient. While state regulators are requiring large investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power to not disconnect their customers during the pandemic, local ones have only been asked not to on a voluntary basis.
It is difficult to say how many households in Minnesota have had their power or gas shut off due to non-payment since the pandemic began. Unlike their larger counterparts, Minnesota’s municipal utilities and utility co-operatives — which serve an estimated 994,000 residential customers in the state, according to the Minnesota Municipal Utility Association — are not regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission and thus have fewer centralized reporting requirements.
More than 130 municipal utilities and co-operatives, however, did respond to a March request from the PUC to not disconnect late-paying customers, offer payment plans to qualifying customers and cease charging late fees during the pandemic, according to PUC filings. Later in June, the PUC made it mandatory for investor-owned utilities to maintain those protections for as long Minnesota’s ongoing peacetime emergency declaration is in effect.
Roughly half of the 130 respondents said they would continue the protections for the length of the peacetime emergency as well. But at least a dozen of them signaled in their filings that they would extend them only until specific dates.