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Thousands of Washingtonians face unpaid utility bills as state moratorium ends

Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission reported more than 283,223 customers have overdue bills adding up to $81.5 million.

EVERETT, Wash. — A statewide ban on disconnecting utility services that's been in place for 18 months ends Sept. 30, and it could affect hundreds of thousands of people.

While utility disconnections will be able to resume, a statewide moratorium on evictions issued by Gov. Jay Inslee will remain in place through October. The ban on utility disconnections has prevented companies from shutting off people's water and power for months. 

“With the eviction moratorium and utilities, I mean, people are terrified," said Michelle Ballard, with the Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano, which helps provide services for people impacted financially or otherwise by the pandemic. 

"They're going to be out of a place to live, out of PUD. You know, it's scary. It's a scary place right now for a lot of people," Ballard continued. She said her center has been busy with calls this week from people stressing about overdue utility bills.

"When COVID hit, we all thought it was gonna be a couple months, and it turns into what? A year and a half, almost two years now, those power bills have added up," said Ballard.

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The Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission (WUTC) regulates utilities for about half the state. It reported 283,223 customers have overdue bills, adding up to $81.5 million.

"Our utilities were reporting that the overdue bill amount was much closer to about $61 million in just January of this year, so it's significantly increased,” said Emilie Brown, Media and Communications manager for the WUTC.

Snohomish County PUD reported more than 40,000 customers with overdue bills. That's 12% of its total customer base and in a typical year about 10% of customers are behind on bills.

Snohomish County PUD told KING 5 there's a lot of steps in place before someone's utilities are disconnected.

"So, they get phone calls, they get letters, they get many notices before we just come out and disconnect their power. And it's something we do not enjoy to do at all. So, we're here to help,” said Aaron Swaney, Snohomish County PUD's media liaison. 

Officials said the key is communication with your utility company.

"We are proactively trying to reach out to these customers, but we know that we're not going to reach all of them. So, call us, let us know the situation that you're in, and we can get you the help you need," said Swaney.

“Power companies do not want to shut us off, that is not a good thing for them to do. So, calling them and talking to them, and they understand that there's a lot more need than there used to be. There's also a lot more financial assistance than there used to be,” said Ballard.

As colder months approach in western Washington, many utility companies have said they will not disconnect power. For example, Snohomish County PUD has a moratorium on disconnections from Nov. 15 through spring.

The city of Puyallup also announced Wednesday that its citywide moratorium on utility shutoffs will remain in effect until further notice, despite the statewide moratorium expiring. 

WUTC also added that fees for overdue payments shouldn’t be expected for customers.

“I think it's important for customers to know that if they have a private utility that UTC regulates, they also can't be charged late fees or be charged if they need to reconnect to service if their service is disconnected until the end of March 2022," Brown said.