Customers’ losses still top priority over utilities’

The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s COVID-19 executive orders included a necessary moratorium on utility service disconnections.

With an order to shelter at home, families and individuals need electricity, gas, water and sewage services, even if their paychecks might have stopped arriving.

Now, Indiana’s privately owned utilities are seeking not only to protect themselves from losses on delinquent bills, but also to require customers to make up a share of revenue lost when factories and other businesses were forced to shut down. A petition filed by 10 utility companies with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission seeks “to defer as a regulatory asset certain incremental expense increases and revenue reductions.”

Utility company spokesmen caution the petition doesn’t mean customers will see immediate increases.

“There will be no immediate impacts or changes in rates,” wrote Nick Meyer, director of communications for Northern Indiana Public Service Company, which serves both natural gas and some electric customers in northeast Indiana. “Any recovery mechanism would be determined at a future date and subject to full regulatory review.”

That’s true, but the petition’s purpose is to inoculate NIPSCO, I&M and other privately held utilities from greater financial losses at the same time most customers — residential and business — are themselves reeling from economic catastrophe. The utilities’ concern for shareholders appears to outweigh their concern for ratepayers.

And the Indiana Energy Association, the trade group representing the utilities, isn’t entirely forthcoming when it suggests 29 other states have approved similar regulations.

Other states agreed to allow their utilities to defer costs related to disconnections and unpaid fees. They have not agreed to allow utilities to make up for energy that wasn’t used.

“Utility companies are still incredibly financially healthy, their earnings are fine, their paychecks are clearing, service is being delivered to customers, where’s the issue?” Kerwin Olson, director of Citizens Action Coalition, told the Indianapolis Star. “Who needs to be bailed out? Monopoly utility companies, or customers?”

Holcomb said last week he might extend the order preventing utility disconnects for non-payment. He should do so to prevent the mass disconnections likely to follow.

A task force, with representatives from consumer groups, public service agencies and public and private utility companies, should be established to figure out how to handle the crisis once the moratorium is lifted. The office of the Indiana Utility Consumer Counselor has called on the state to study the pandemic’s impact on utility rates and overdue accounts.

Hoosiers have plenty of headaches without worrying about higher utility rates. There’s no reason for Indiana to place the recovery of investor-owned utilities before anyone else’s recovery.

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