WG&E customer arrears back to ‘pre-pandemic’ levels

WESTFIELD — Westfield Gas & Electric General Manager Thomas P. Flaherty said Sept. 8 that the majority of customers who missed payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic have caught up.

Three thousand WG&E customers had received letters in March declaring that they had bills that were 60 days past due, a high water mark for collective missed payments, which can largely be blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, Flaherty had given ratepayers a September deadline to pay back their arrears.

Flaherty said ahead of the Municipal Light Board meeting Sept. 8 that the issue had peaked at $1.9 million in late bills more than 90 days past due. As of now, Flaherty said that number is down to $425,000, of which about $125,000 is medically protected, meaning that those customers cannot have their electricity shut off despite the late payments.

That leaves $300,000 remaining in collectable missed payments, which Flaherty described as a “pre-pandemic number,” a sign that the individual economic impacts of the pandemic may be subsiding, even as the pandemic itself continues to surge.

Flaherty said that much of the success in getting the missed payments back on track was because WG&E was able to begin the collections process earlier than private utility companies like Eversource or National Grid, who weren’t allowed to begin doing so until July 1.

Many of the customers with missed bills were able to receive assistance from organizations like Way Finders and the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Way Finders is a Springfield nonprofit that aims to help keep people out of homelessness. LIHEAP is a program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services whose main objective is to assist financially struggling families with their home energy bills.

As many customers began to have their power reconnected, it became apparent that the current reconnection billing system was out of date, and the light board voted to make a change.

Previously, the reconnection price increased from $25 to $50 if the work was performed after 3 p.m., to account for the increased labor cost due to required overtime. Flaherty said that power reconnection does not always need to be done in person anymore, and therefore the increased labor cost was considered to be outdated. Now, the plan is to make the fee a flat $50 for WG&E, and $30 for Whip City Fiber.

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