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Residents still need help with the bills

MEO sees rise in applications, with some unable to pay since last year

Maui County residents still need help paying the bills even as the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission last week extended the temporary ban on disconnections for electricity, water and other utilities.

“While the moratorium offers some relief to these households for the time being, it doesn’t eliminate the large debts owed,” said Cassi Yamashita, community services director at Maui Economic Opportunity.

The nonprofit has a program to assist low-income households with bills from Hawaiian Electric Co. or Hawaii Gas.

“Many of the applications we are seeing are from households who have not been able to pay their bills for months, some almost a year,” Yamashita said. “The same can be said about rental or mortgage assistance applications.”

Yamashita credited HECO for providing “generous payment arrangement options” and said there are other agencies that can also assist working class families, including Maui United Way.

About 6,200 electric customers in Maui County owe more than $700, said Shayna Decker, a spokeswoman for Hawaiian Electric. Eight percent of Maui County residential customers owe back payments and have set up a payment arrangement plan with the utility, she added.

A $2 million Hawaii Utility Bill Assistance Program funded by Hawaiian Electric shareholders rolled out in early February, which Decker said “highlighted the critical needs for help among utility customers, not just for electric bills, but also water, sewer and gas.”

Last week, the PUC extended the disconnection moratorium that was set to expire at the end of March through May 31. However, the PUC said it anticipates the moratorium will be lifted on June 1, and that by May 1, utilities must notify all customers about the suspension being lifted.

With President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress, Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said last week that an estimated $6 million will be available for Hawaii’s households for electric and water utility assistance.

The funding includes additional Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, funding to help Hawaiian Electric, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative and Hawaii Gas customers pay their bills. There will also be new funding to help low-income households pay for water and sewer expenses, Schatz said.

Yamashita said that MEO recently has been handling a lot of applications from households that have not been making payments since March 2020 and are in “the thousands behind their bill.”

Many of the families not affected by job losses or reduction in hours may still struggle with bills as more energy is being used at home under stay-at-home orders and/or limited outdoor activity options, Yamashita said.

Last year, Yamashita said the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program allotment went from 10 households per month to 15. The program, which MEO handles, was also amended to accommodate those whose income was affected by the pandemic.

Because the moratorium was close to expiring, MEO for the last three months has met the maximum number of families it can help within the first three days of the month. Assistance is given out monthly and people need to reapply, as there is no wait list.

Yamashita said that on March 1, she was able to get approval to process an additional five households; that same day, she filled all the extra spots. March’s monthly assistance total was 20 households, five above the usual allotment.

She said the program can assist with up to $650 for households not affected by the pandemic and up to $1,000 for pandemic-affected households.

Applications are available at meoinc.org or by calling MEO Community Services at 249-2970.

Decker said that HECO has a process in place to keep customers connected even if the moratorium ends. She encouraged customers to set up payment plans by visiting hawaiianelectric.com/paymentarrangement.

“Our goal is to keep all customers connected through different initiatives post-moratorium,” she added.

The utility continues to reach out to both residential and commercial customers with past due balances, she added.

For those farthest behind on their bills, HECO is reaching out via phone, email, letters and door hangers to urge them to set up a payment arrangement.

“Setting up and keeping up with payment plans will ensure customers stay connected,” she added.

Decker said they are also working with all the counties, which are developing programs to disperse the latest round of federal funding.

State Rep. Tina Wildberger of Kihei said she has not seen any bills in the Legislature that would give residents utility bill relief but noted there have been “many private sector efforts to convince HECO to forgive the bills on their own accord.”

“The bottom line is, the county and the state and even the federal government cannot afford to pay all the rent, mortgage and bills of all the residents who are suffering right now,” Wildberger said via email last week. “These businesses that enjoyed record profits and tax breaks need to step up and provide some relief for their customers.”

Wildberger said that when restaurants had to close last year, her small business, Kihei Ice Inc., suspended ice machine lease payments to 20 restaurant customers.

“We wrote these things off to uncollectible debt,” she said. “Now that they are back up and running, they are able to make their lease payments. We are not asking them to pay leases for months they weren’t operating.

“Money out of my pocket? Yep. The right thing to do? Yep! It would kill the electrical utility to write off some percentage of struggling families’ unpaid utility bills.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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