Unpaid utility bills are stacking up, assistance programs will likely fall short

Image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

With hundreds of thousands of Nevadans still unsure how they will pay next month’s rent, there is still a lot of focus on helping people whittle down unpaid rents and keeping people housed during a pandemic.

But what about the mounting backlog of unpaid utility bills?

According to NV Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht, the company isn’t disconnecting services for nonpayment for “customers in Southern Nevada who have indicated to us that they are financially impacted by COVID-19.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted tens of thousands of NV Energy customers, and since earlier this year we have and are continuing to connect them with bill payment assistance options and NV Energy payment programs to help them during this difficult time.” she said in an email last week.

When asked, Schuricht didn’t provide the precise number of residents behind on their payments. In August, NV Energy reported about 68,000 customers, both residential and commercial, were behind on payments.  

Nearly $8 million in federal coronavirus relief funding has been applied to 15,700 customers in unincorporated Clark County and 9,100 customers in the City of North Las Vegas, Schuricht said.

“We’ve worked closely with Clark County and the City of North Las Vegas to identify customers behind on their utility bills who have let us know they’ve been financially impacted by COVID-19, and applied federal CARES Act funding directly to these customer accounts,” she said.  

When applying for rental assistance through the CARES Housing Assistance Program, tenants are also able to get help paying down utility bills. 

However, LaLo Montoya, the political director of Make the Road Nevada, said it is more effective to provide targeted relief rather than having to apply for assistance, which can be complicated and present barriers for those without Internet. 

“There are too many hoops and processes that directly impacted people have to go through to get any assistance at all,” he said. “We have to meet them in the middle somehow. The responsibility during the pandemic cannot solely fall on the people who are suffering.”

Corey Enus, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Valley Water District, said the district wasn’t able to take a similar approach as NV Energy. 

“We haven’t received CARES Act funds due to interpretations of the guidelines within the act, however, we are hopeful that we will be able to access some of these funds in the near future to help our customers,” he said. 

In other states, he added, there have been new interpretations of the guidelines for accessing funds.

Since March there have been approximately 34,000 accounts that were 60 or more days behind, up from 33,000 accounts in a similar period last year, Enus said. That amounts to roughly $7.2 million in unpaid bills compared to $4.6 million in 2019. 

However, Enus argued the more telling comparison is for customers who are 90 days past due, for which the total debt was $4.6 million in 2020 compared to $2.6 million in 2019.

“Typically, there’s been a $2.5 million difference between 2019 and 2020 no matter what month you look at since the pandemic started,” he added. 

Since September when the moratorium on shut-offs lifted, Enus said out of 400,000 accounts, only 237 water services have been shut off. Of those, he added 179 had since been restored. 

“Most of the shut-offs are related to properties that have no listed customer of record, but are registering water use,” he said. “This is generally a new tenant that has moved in and not established their account with us.”

He also added that there have been “1,000 payment arrangements for customers with a past due debt greater than $300.”

The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association sent a letter this month to Congressional leaders asking that relief include focus on the backlog of utility bills, writing that, “moratoriums do not eliminate the bills.” 

“The amount they owe has continued to grow. We are already hearing reports of households with arrearages up to $3,000 and expect the debt to only get worse as the pandemic drags on.”

The relief legislation passed by Congress earlier this week includes additional money for rental assistance, which can be used to pay back rent and utilities.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.