Community

Utility providers in Kentucky can begin collecting back payments from customers beginning November 6th under a new order from Gov. Andy Beshear. 

The order Beshear signed Monday extends an Oct. 20 deadline established by the state’s utility regulators and sets aside $15 million in federal coronavirus relief to help customers who’ve fallen behind on their utility bills. 

“The relief fund will have broad eligibility for Kentuckians who have past due payments and will focus primarily on water and wastewater services that are critical to fighting this pandemic,” Beshear said during a news conference Monday. 

Utilities can begin disconnecting services when the moratorium ends November 6th, but Beshear’s order also requires utilities to set up payment plans with terms of at least six months. If a customer fails to pay on-time, utilities can disconnect services, according to the order. 

The state will use federal coronavirus relief funds to create a “Healthy at Home Utility Relief Fund,” administered through local community action agencies. Customers can apply through Community Action Kentucky. The funds however, will go directly to utilities. 

The $15 million in relief represents only a fraction of the amount Kentuckians need to keep the lights on, the heat running and the water flowing. A survey of state utilities found customers are at least $75 million behind on payments — a figure state regulators say could balloon to $150 million by the end of the year, according to the Public Service Commission.

About $13 million in relief will go toward helping customers in arrears pay for water and sewer bills. That’s because there’s already a federal program to help customers pay for gas and electricity called  the “Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program” (LIHEAP), but there is no similar federal program for water and sewer bills. 

Housing advocate and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition Cathy Kuhn said her organization is happy to see the moratorium extended, even if it’s just for three weeks, but the $500 limit is likely not enough to help people who are really struggling. 

The new deadline also leaves organizations with little time to spend the relief funds, she said.  

“That money needs to be spent before the end of December so there’s a lot of work to do to make sure that $15 million is getting into the hands of people that need it,” Kuhn said. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.