Reporting from Sacramento — State regulators Thursday put a brake on actions that the state's biggest utilities can take to shut off electric and natural gas service of residents who fall behind on their bills.
The California Public Utilities Commission made existing rules permanent and added new protections to help customers pay their bills and avoid having to put up further credit to retain services. The new rules extend the time for paying off balances and lessen — and sometimes eliminate — requirements to pay new deposits after a disconnection.
"The recession is continuing, and we need to take further steps," said Commissioner Dian M. Grueneich, who led a yearlong drive to help financially strapped consumers keep their lights on and furnaces running.
The effort, which began with a temporary moratorium on disconnections in December and January, already has shown some success.
Shut-offs at the state's four regulated utilities — Southern California Edison Co., San Diego Gas & Electric Co., Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co. — dropped to 3.8% of all residential customers in May from 4.6% in September, Grueneich said.
The PUC's independent consumer advocacy unit, the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, praised the commissioners for voting unanimously to continue a series of interim orders and institute some new ones by Oct. 1.
"Customers already struggling to make payments should not be hit with high deposit requirements and inflexible payment plans," said Dana Appling, the unit's director. "We will continue to work to ensure utilities deal fairly with their customers, particularly those most at risk of falling behind."
The new protections require utilities to tell customers that they have a right to set up an extended payment period of up to three months to get up to date on their bills.
Ratepayers who participate in special, low-income assistance programs would not have to put up additional credit deposits because of slow or non-payment of bills or to reestablish service after a disconnection.
Deposits to reconnect services would be reduced for all other residential customers, and people with medical problems would not have service disconnected unless a utility representative visits them to give them a last chance to arrange payments and avoid shut-offs.
The commission's initiative was spurred last year by complaints from the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco consumer organization.
The complaints were followed by a state survey that showed that disconnections of low-income customers jumped 28% from September 2008 to August 2009 compared with the previous 12 months. That situation is improving, thanks to PUC oversight, said Mark Toney, TURN's executive director.
"Payment plans, smaller deposits and waiving deposits are all things the utilities can do to help customers through hard times," he said.
The new commission policies are in line with changes that Southern California Edison began making at the end of 2008, said Linda Yamauchi, the Rosemead utility's manager of consumer affairs.
"When the economy started affecting our customers," she said, "we started relaxing internal policies to help customers."