Gov. Cooper says another extension to utilities shutoff moratorium is unlikely

Capitol Report

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said Tuesday it’s not likely he’ll extend the executive order that prevents utilities from shutting off services for customers who don’t pay.

That order lasts through July 29 after Cooper extended it, citing the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those families are facing severe financial hardship. So, I think this executive order was very important to be able to protect them,” said Cooper.

Executive Order 142 extended the moratorium on evictions in addition to preventing utilities from shutting off services if people don’t pay their bills. The order does not waive those bills altogether, but it does waive late fees and interest for several months once it’s lifted and people begin paying what they owe. It encourages utilities and customers to set up payment plans.

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State Treasurer Dale Folwell (R) said the move has had unintended consequences for utilities managed by local governments.

“It’s putting them in financial peril,” he said. “We’re putting people in a mathematical situation where the cities or the citizens are never going to be able to climb out of it.”

On Tuesday, he urged other members of the Council of State to support rescinding the executive order and allow citizen-owned utilities to make decisions regarding shut-offs.

“It should be applying to people whose income has actually fallen. It’s going to have a really negative impact on these communities, and we need to push the power back out to these communities that have dealt with this for decades,” Folwell said.

Elizabeth City’s leaders sought a waiver to the executive order, which the state attorney general’s office granted last week.

City Manager Richard Olson said about 27 to 30 percent of customers were not paying electric bills, leading to a loss of $1 million to $1.5 million per month. He said that led to a risk of the city being in default and rates being increased for all customers.

“I think the spirit of what the governor was trying to do is commendable. However, he should have consulted with local units of government first of all,” he said.

As part of the waiver, there is still a provision that people with hardships will not be disconnected through July 29. That applies to people in the following circumstances: they are unemployed and unable to receive unemployment benefits, they have contracted COVID-19 or has an immediate family member who has contracted COVID-19.  

Olson said he had heard anecdotally that some customers were not paying under the incorrect belief that the bills had been waived altogether under the executive order.

During Tuesday’s Council of State meeting, Attorney General Josh Stein (D) talked about the situation in Elizabeth City, saying he “frankly was unimpressed by the forthrightness and professionalism of the city manager there. But, nonetheless, we did what we thought was the right thing to do for the city’s finances.”

Olson responded, “I don’t think that the attorney general is in tune with how local units of government work, and I wish he would have asked for some guidance, asked for some input.”

Stein criticized the proposal to change the executive order now, saying that could hurt people who are still struggling in the pandemic.

Auditor Beth Wood said she does not believe keeping the moratorium in place indefinitely is sustainable. However, she’s also concerned that, based on investigations her office has done, there are cities and communities not being run well.

“And to say they have the ability to make the right decisions is not a true statement,” she said.

“I am investigating goings-on in several cities right now who have absolutely no financial controls in place,” she said, adding that the City of Rocky Mount had written off $1 million per year in electric bills for 20 years and that city council members didn’t know those write-offs were happening.

She said 150 local governments are on a financial watch list “not because they can’t pay their bills but because they’re not being run well. We have financial officers who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, city managers who don’t have a clue what they’re doing.”

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