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Utility Disconnections Mount Up As Local Governments Await American Rescue Plan Money

Electric power meter measuring power usage.
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Utility disconnections mount up as local governments await American Rescue Plan money

A nationwide moratorium on evictions spared millions of people struggling to pay their bills, but the same didn’t happen for utilities. many companies allowed a grace period for people struggling to pay their bills. But that’s mostly ended. Now hundreds of thousands of Floridians have had their power shut off, and money earmarked for residential relief hasn’t been able to help everyone.

More than 2,600 Tallahassee residents have had their power shut off since April. To try and help people keep or restore their power local governments have been using federal relief money to pay past due balances for residents. James Barnes, the city's chief customer officer, explains.

"The suspension is not holistic in nature because it is our goal to ensure that we connect everyone with Leon County Cares, or with the social agencies or provide some type of assistance with a pay plan or extensions to mitigate anyone from being without services," Barnes said.

Tallahassee resident Marcus Ferrell was able to get that assistance. He operates a taxi service but had to stop to stay at home with his kids who were distance learning. As a result, he got behind on utility payments.

"$982 or something of utilities," Ferrel said. "So, they paid all that off."

But not everyone was able to get help. Between August and March, more than 610 thousand residential utility lines were cut off by the big five investor-owned utility companies in Florida, and of those, 59 thousand weren’t reconnected. To try and get more help Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) during the session proposed a bill that would set aside $100 million to reimburse utility companies and get power restored to Floridians. That money would have come from the federal government’s latest relief bill.

"There is not a need for us to dip into state general revenue to fund this program because we have over $10 billion on the way, and I'm actually not even including the money that is going to be allocated to cities and counties in Florida," Smith said.

The bill never received a hearing, something Aliki Moncrief with Florida Conservation Voters says was a lost opportunity.

"It was a failure on the part of the legislature and on the part of Governor DeSantis to make sure that some of those relief funds actually went to providing people with relief," Moncrief.

Moncrief says now it’s up to local governments to once again use incoming federal money from the American Rescue Plan.

"It’s actually a major opportunity for them to not only provide utility relief but rental relief. So hopefully in the coming days and weeks, that’s what local governments will do," Moncrief said.

That money is on the way from the federal government. It's expected to be deposited straight into local government coffers within days or weeks.