JAMESTOWN – [MEDIA RELEASE] – Jamestown Board of Public Utilities (BPU) customers behind on utility bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic should apply now for assistance to pay bills for which they ultimately are responsible.
At the beginning of pandemic limitations implemented in March, the BPU committed not to disconnect service to utility customers until further notice. New York State later restrained all utilities from performing shut-offs. When such State constraints are lifted, however, customers who have not kept up on their bills could face overwhelming financial obligations that may cause shut-off of utility services.
“We’re concerned that many customers are building large balances of payments owed,” states BPU General Manager David L. Leathers. “When pandemic restrictions are soon lifted, these customers must pay their bills or risk financial penalties and possibly disconnection of service.”
BPU Customer Service representatives are calling customers with high balances to make them aware of their situations and to explain that they can pay online, by phone or in drop boxes. They also offer information about where customers may request assistance to pay their bills and that, for any electric service balances, customers may be eligible for a special payment arrangement with the utility based on their current financial circumstances.
The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) is one option for customers who need help in paying electric utility bills and who meet certain monthly income guidelines. HEAP does not provide financial support for the payment of water, wastewater and solid waste bills.
“We understand that HEAP depends upon income levels from the previous four weeks,” says Leathers. “If customers haven’t qualified in the past, they may discover they now qualify for the assistance. It is worth a call to determine if you are eligible for funding support, as we are told there is money available should residents need it.”
There are two kinds of HEAP – Regular HEAP and Emergency HEAP which are detailed at otda.ny.gov/programs/heap/. The HEAP program for the 2019-2020 season has been extended three times over the winter/spring/summer season and is currently extended through August 31, 2020. Along with the extension of program dates, the Emergency HEAP program has been expanded to three emergency benefits per household through August 31, 2020. If a customer has received prior HEAP payments, they still may be eligible to receive it again this summer.
An application is required for the Regular HEAP program and can be accessed online at mybenefits.ny.gov or an application may be mailed to customers who call the local HEAP Department at (716)753-4385. To qualify for an Emergency HEAP benefit, a customer must have already received a Regular HEAP benefit or currently qualify under the monthly income guidelines and be in shut-off status with the utility company. Those residents who already have received a Regular benefit may contact the HEAP unit at (716)753-4385 or their Temporary Assistance/SNAP workers at (716)661-8200 to request an Emergency HEAP payment.
“There is money through HEAP to assist customers with their overdue electric bills,” continues Leathers. “A BPU shut-off letter, that still is being generated, verifies to HEAP that you need financial assistance.”
The Chautauqua County Department of Social Services is a second agency to contact for help with utility payments that are adding up during the moratorium of disconnections, but that eventually must be paid. The number to call for Social Services is (716)661-8200.
The Salvation Army may be reached at (716)664-4108 to join a waiting list for appointments for help from Salvation Army funds and from the John Alfred & Oscar Johnson Memorial Trust/BPU Good Neighbor Fund. Details about the Johnson/BPU Good Neighbor Fund may be accessed at Jamestownbpu.com/255/Good-Neighbor-Fund.
The Johnson/BPU Good Neighbor Fund helps customers who regularly pay BPU bills and who receive no government assistance for utilities but who meet a hardship that prevents them from paying. Loss of work because of COVID-19 restrictions, is one financial hardship that can be assisted by the Good Neighbor Fund. The Good Neighbor Fund, however, is comprised of a small pool of money made up of private donations that can be depleted at any time and is approved on a first-come, first-served basis.
BPU officials believe that some customers may be ignoring shut-off notices because members of the public know they cannot be disconnected until further notice due to the BPU’s COVID-19 policies. Customers are urged to apply for financial help now to pay BPU bills so that they will maintain utility service when pandemic restrictions are lifted.
The BPU will soon be resuming utility shut-offs for lack of payments. Residents who do not keep up on their bills now will be in danger of disconnected services in the coming weeks.