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Lawmakers set to fast-track new protections against utility shutdown

Lawmakers appear poised to fast-track a bill creating new protections against utility shutdowns after the state’s shutdown moratorium expired last week.

The Senate and Assembly committees will on Monday consider a measure allowing residents who are behind on their utility bills to defer payments while they apply for financial assistance from the state.

Nearly a million New Jersey residents are at risk of having their services interrupted due to the expiration of the moratoriumand the bill’s sponsors say it’s not fair for residents to have their services shut down while they wait for the state to process their requests for help.

“These closures are going to have a devastating impact on the community if we don’t give them a little more time and if we don’t allow people to apply for help from the utility assistance fund,” the member said. ‘Assembly Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), lead sponsor of the bill in the Assembly.

If the measure is approved by committees of both houses on Monday — bills that are shown in committee rarely fail — the measure is expected to be voted on by the full Senate and House on Thursday and could be signed into law before the end of the week. Governor Phil Murphy is expected to sign it.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) in the Senate, would offer residents who seek utility assistance from a state agency a 60-day grace period during which their utilities will not cannot be cut.

Utility companies would not be able to shut down customers unless state authorities approve or deny the request for assistance. To benefit from the grace period, residents must apply before June 15.

The measure would also prevent municipalities from placing a lien on a resident’s property over unpaid electricity, water or sewer charges during the 60-day window. Liens would also be prohibited while a customer is appealing a denied request for utility assistance.

Utility providers would be required to offer residents who received a 60-day shutdown a 12-month repayment plan after the grace period expires. Utility cuts could resume if a resident does not accept the payment plan within 30 days of its offer.

“A lot of people are still unemployed. They still have a lot of challenges. The state hasn’t paid a lot of people, so it wouldn’t be fair to cut people’s electricity,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), one of the bill’s main sponsors.

The measure would also order utilities to immediately restore services suspended between the end of the moratorium on state utility shutdowns and the effective date of the bill if a customer requests state assistance. .

New Jersey’s utility shutdown moratorium and the state’s Winter Termination Program, which prohibits shutdowns during the winter months, expired on March 15, allowing providers to begin sending out closure notices. to customers behind on their utility bills.

Board of Public Utilities Chairman Joe Fiordaliso said last week that about 850,000 residents were behind on their electricity and gas bills, with another 157,000 behind on water utility payments. Together, they owe more than $710 million.

“We’re talking about a lot of people, and it’s going to take a long time to process those requests for help and make decisions on eligibility,” Mukherji said. “I understand why it’s going to take time for them to do this, but in the meantime they shouldn’t suffer as we are still dealing with all relief requests.”