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Proposed Ky. law aims to limit gas, electric service disconnections

A view inside the Kentucky House of Representatives. The desks are wood, the chairs are black and the carpet is blue.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
A proposal in the Kentucky General Assembly aims to protect people against utility shut-offs.

A proposal in the Kentucky General Assembly aims to protect people facing financial hardship from having their utilities shut off at home.

Lawmakers say the measure is necessary because utility disconnections are financially burdensome and put vulnerable residents at risk of losing their homes. They say loss of service could also be life-threatening for people who are medically compromised, and during extreme weather conditions.

Louisville Gas and Electric disconnected utility services of 46,344 households in the city for nonpayment in 2022. Last month, 5,940 customers lost gas or electricity and, consequently, their ability to heat their homes — and 1,520 LG&E customers were facing loss of service as of Feb. 6.

A spokesperson for the energy company said LG&E procedures require pausing disconnections for 24 hours during extreme weather conditions, communicating with residents ahead of shutting off their services and offering them payment plans. But state Rep. Lisa Willner, a Democrat from Louisville who’s co-sponsoring the measure, said the protocols aren’t guaranteed to protect vulnerable residents.

“LG&E has some internal policies, but they don't have the force of law or regulation,” Willner said. “The legislation is much more specific than the utility company's internal policies about what those temperatures would be, how many days before they’re able to disconnect…it creates a lot of new guardrails to keep people safe in their homes.”

The bill would bar gas and electric utility companies from disconnecting services for residents late on payments if temperatures are forecast to be 32 degrees or below or 95 degrees or more. It would require utility companies to halt all service disconnections until temperatures are stable for a period of 72 consecutive hours.

“Members of our community have been hard hit by utility shut-offs during challenging times, during weather emergencies, on weekends or on holidays, when it's difficult or impossible to do anything about it,” Willner said.

That’s why, she said, the bill would prohibit service disconnections on holidays and weekends as well as before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m. on weekdays. It would also require energy providers to reconnect services for customers who make partial payments and set up payment plans to get back on track.

The measure also proposes requiring utility companies to notify residents at risk of disconnection at least two weeks before they would lose services. And it specifies those documents should be mailed separately from monthly bills.

“It's a public safety issue — it's even a socioeconomic issue. People lose their homes and it becomes much more expensive and a much more complicated problem to solve,” Willner said. “It's also a public health issue.”

Willner said losing power could be life-threatening, especially for Kentuckians who have health complications.

“I heard directly from social workers who engage in direct services of people who are on medical devices that rely on having electricity and, if the electricity goes off, then their medical devices no longer work,” Willner said.

For added protection, the bipartisan bill would allow residents to obtain certificates of need from physicians or community and faith-based organizations verifying that utility disconnections are a risk to their well-being. The certification would allow people with medical conditions to get lost services restored faster. It would also exempt them from penalties like termination, re-connection and late payment fees.

District 4 Louisville Metro Council Member Jecorey Arthur, a Democrat, sponsored a resolution in support of the measure this week. He said the rising cost of natural gas as well as residual financial hardships as a result of the pandemic is detrimental to residents’ health and safety.

“Plenty of our council members have been hit up about the hikes in utility bills. This is something that's impacting Kentuckians, and Americans in general,” Arthur said.

He said less than a quarter of Kentuckians eligible for utility assistance actually get it.

“So what we're hoping to do passing this resolution is say…we're going to make sure that we're not shutting off your utilities in a moment of crisis,” Arthur said.

The Council’s Committee on Equity, Community Affairs, Housing, Health and Education.

unanimously advanced the symbolic gesture in support of the measure. The full body is expected to vote on it Thursday.

Resources for people at risk of losing gas or electricity services:

Yasmine Jumaa is a former LPM race and equity reporter.

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