As temperatures drop and the Upper Valley braces for colder months ahead, some electric customers of Liberty Utilities in New Hampshire are still playing catch-up from last winter.
Last fall, Liberty — which covers areas of Cornish, Enfield, Grafton, Hanover, Lebanon, Lyme and Plainfield — switched to a new digital billing system, resulting in snags that kept some ratepayers from receiving bills for months.
When bills finally arrived, some customers found themselves owing multiple months of payment at once, sometimes in the thousands of dollars, said Heather Griffin, a programs assistance manager for Listen Community Services in Lebanon.
The billing issue was resolved this spring, Liberty officials have said. But ramifications remain.
Listen saw an increase of more than 50% in households seeking assistance with their electric bills this summer, many of whom were impacted by the billing delay.
“We’ve used a significant amount of our (utility assistance) budget to avoid electrical disconnections,” Griffin said, adding that most of those disconnect threats come from Liberty.
Liberty temporarily halted disconnections during the transition to the new billing system at the end of last year, Emily Burnett, a spokeswoman for the utility, wrote in an email to the Valley News on Friday.
But even for those whose bills were delayed, Liberty sent out a notification “earlier this year that disconnections would be resuming,” Burnett said.
As Listen helps residents in need navigate assistance, communication between the agency and Liberty, previously stunted by layers of bureaucracy, has smoothed, said Sophia Gawel, a Listen service coordinator. But clients continue reporting difficulty reaching the utility, she added.
“Over this time, (there has) been harm done to clients financially, as well as their trust” in Liberty, Gawel said.
Even in the best of times, “Liberty is a utility that seems to be prone to operational difficulties,” said Don Kreis, New Hampshire’s consumer advocate.
But he advised customers against ignoring bills if they start to pile up, even if the backlog is caused by a billing delay.
“If you’re in a situation where you either can’t, or just haven’t, paid your bill, you should call the utility and discuss it with them,” Kreis said. “Ignoring the utility never works.”
In August, most electric rates fell significantly.
Liberty customers who were paying 22 cents per kilowatt hour last year are now paying under 13 cents per kilowatt hour.
Natural gas prices have also fallen. But those who heat their homes with natural gas could again face a pricey heating season if New England is hit with another colder-than-usual winter, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
“There was a lot of assistance needed last winter, which could also be the case this winter,” Gawel said.
In addition to Liberty’s billing delay, high heating costs were “part of the reason that people ended up with back balances with their electric company,” she said.
Liberty customers seeking special payment arrangements or financial assistance can call the utility’s customer service line at 1-800-375-7413.
To apply for state assistance, customers of any utility can reach out to their community action agency.
In Sullivan County, the agency is Southwestern Community Services (603-542-9528 for the Claremont office). In Grafton, it’s Tri-County Community Action (1-888-648-2227).
Source: Valley News