- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana Public Service Commission is considering changing the administrative rules governing when utilities can shut off electric service for non-payment during the winter, including shortening the five-month moratorium to three months so customers can’t accrue overwhelming overdue bills.

The current rules, adopted in 1980, were meant to protect low-income, elderly and ill customers who might have difficulty paying their power bills in the winter. However, administrators of the Low Income Energy Assistance Program and Energy Share raised concerns that the five-month moratorium led some customers to accrue past-due charges in the thousands of dollars, making it very difficult for them to get caught up, PSC spokesman Eric Sell said Wednesday.

Currently, utilities are not allowed to shut off services between Nov. 1 through April 1 for customers who can demonstrate they cannot pay, must pay in installments or if a member of the household is disabled or age 62 and over.

Under the proposal, the weather rules would be in effect from Dec. 1 through the end of February. Utilities would not be allowed to shut off service during that time if an account has a delinquent balance of less than $200 or if a minimum payment of at least one-third of the overdue balance had been made in the past 30 days. Power cannot be shut off during those months for customers over age 62, those who are disabled or are unable to pay their bills.

The PSC is taking written comment on the proposed changes through Friday and they’ve scheduled a public discussion on May 5 at the PSC offices in Helena.

“It’s just a roundtable discussion to see if it would be a good idea to change the rules,” Sell said.

NorthWestern Energy did not request any of the changes, but is interested in discussing them, said Butch Larcombe, spokesman for the utility that has 285,000 residential customers in Montana.

There are some people who truly have a hard time paying their power bills in the winter, Larcombe said. But there are “a number of people who have learned how the system works and have used it to not pay their bills.”

Other recommended changes include not allowing power to be disconnected on days when the temperature is below 20 degrees at 8 a.m. or if the National Weather Service forecasts a snowstorm or temperatures below 20 degrees over the next 24 hours. The current temperature rule is 32 degrees.

Utilities would still be required to provide service to customers if the absence of service will aggravate an existing medical condition or threaten the health of a customer or household member. However, to avoid accumulating a substantial overdue bill, the customer must make a payment arrangement equal to their average monthly bill, plus one-sixth of the overdue costs. The current rules allow payment of current charges plus 1/12th of the overdue costs.

Utilities could begin disconnection proceedings in medical cases once the past-due bill reaches $300, but they aren’t required to. The current rule allows bills to grow to $500.

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