Hundreds in Malheur County behind on utility bills but new help arrives

An Idaho Power substation in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

ONTARIO– Malheur County customers won’t see their utilities shut off in coming weeks as the utilities and state regulators roll out new programs to help with past-due bills.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission has approved plans by regulated utilities to help their customers catch up on bills piling up because of the pandemic.

In Malheur County, Idaho Power last month reported nearly 1,400 customers had unpaid bills for electricity. The average customer in Oregon owed $346. And Cascade Natural Gas reported 611 customers in Malheur County were past-due by an average of $185.

The utilities each launched programs to help customers clear up those debts. State regulators also extended until June 30 the moratorium on shutting off service because of unpaid bills.

Idaho Power has already started reaching out to customers and is working with Ontario-based Community in Action.

According to Erica Shiflet of Idaho Power, customers can get help three ways:

• Pay 40% of their past due amount and Idaho Power will cover the remaining 60% with up to $1,200.

• Arrange monthly payments to be matched by Idaho Power up to $1,200 over 12 months.

• Get a one-time grant of up to $250 from Idaho Power to be credited to the account.

“We think these will be a big help going forward,” said Shiflet. “We encourage anyone who is having trouble paying their power bill to reach out to us.”

She said that while roughly the same number of customers had unpaid bills in January 2021 as a year ago, more people are farther behind. In January 2020, 28% of customers were 91 days or later on bills. A year later, that increased to 46%, she said.

According to figures submitted to state regulators, 14% of the utility’s customers in Ontario in January owed past-due bills. In Vale, it was 12% and in Nyssa it was 9.5%.

According to PUC records, Cascade Natural Gas reported more than one out of five of its customers in Nyssa was behind on their bills, a total of 169. In Ontario, 366 were late and 76 were late in Vale.

Cascade established two programs for those behind on their bills:

•An “automatic hardship grant” of up to $1,500 to low-income households that have otherwise received assistance with energy bills. The grant would be applied to the past-due bill. Dan Tillis, a company spokesman, said 36 Ontario customers received that grant Friday, reducing their past-due balance to zero.

•A “financial hardship grant” of up to $1,500 for those who “express financial hardship” tied to Covid. The grant amount would be based on household income.

“We really encourage customers who are past due and experiencing financial difficulty to call,” Tillis said.

He said customers can call 888-522-1130 to determine what help is available.

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