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Activists push for utility aid; Evergy says shutoff moratorium is in place

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Dustin Hare of Rent Zero Kansas speaks during a virtual news conference Thursday as activists called for more help for low-income Kansans struggling with utility bills.

Activists appealed to lawmakers and utility companies Thursday, asking for greater attention to the needs of consumers at risk of having their service disconnected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evergy, the state’s largest utility provider, has said that it has reinstituted a moratorium on disconnecting heat and electricity for residential services.

The ban started in late November and will run at least until March 2021, according to Gina Penzig, Evergy’s manager of external communications.

The move was brought on in part by the rise in COVID-19 cases, as well as the arrival of colder winter months and the expected rollout of a new billing platform in January.

“All these things combined, it was time to pause disconnects again for the next few months,” Penzig said.

But activists from a wide array of groups said during a news conference that the move doesn’t go far enough.

Multiple residents described the anxiety of having their utilities shut off in recent months.

Claire Chadwick, an organizer with the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign, said a bout with COVID-19 and the resulting medical bills thrust her into financial disarray.

That eventually led to her being behind on her utility bills, and she said Evergy threatened her with disconnection, only to put her on a payment plan.

Had she strayed from that payment plan, her utilities would have been shut off anyway, she said.

“It is time for us to come together, rise up and say enough is enough,” Chadwick said.

Ty Gorman, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said there were scores of residents whose utilities have already been shut off and who wouldn’t necessarily be helped by Evergy’s new disconnection moratorium.

“The issue is the tens of thousands of people who have been shut off over the winter,” Gorman said. “Will they be turned back on?”

Advocates wanted the moratorium to be retroactive and said it should extend as long as the pandemic runs. Residents should then be given a more generous time period to pay back any bills that are due, they said.

While Evergy was quick to point to resources that are designed to help, activists argued that Kansas’ Low Income Energy Assistance Program wouldn’t be available until January.

Similarly, they said, the state’s rule preventing utility shutoffs when temperatures are below 35 degrees also wouldn’t be a silver bullet.

“It feels like the financial fall out from COVID-19 is just now knocking on the door,” said Dustin Hare, a representative from Rent Zero Kansas. “I’m terrified of what the coming weeks and months will bring.”