Nashville Electric Service has once again suspended disconnections for non-payment of utility bills through January 31 at the urging of Mayor John Cooper and Vice Mayor Jim Shulman following a report by Tennessee Lookout detailing thousands of shut-offs among city residents.
The utility company’s grace period for customers unable to pay their electric bills during the COVID-19 crisis ended September 30. By mid-December, 18,052 of the city’s 418,000 residential customers had been disconnected. Another 29,939 had received turn off notices between December 1 and December 16, the Lookout reported.
The report of widespread turnoffs among families struggling financially as the pandemic continues unabated in cold winter months alarmed both city officials and nonprofit leaders. A $9.8 million fund for utility, rent and mortgage assistance managed by 38 nonprofit organizations as part of the CARES Act had been depleted almost as quickly as it had arrived in September. Advocates who distributed the funds warned that they were seeing new levels of desperation and families “on the brink of disaster.” Metro Councilman Colby Sledge and others quickly strategized on whether they could leverage other funding to pick up the tab.
In a December 23 letter to Decosta Jenkins, NES president and CEO, Cooper and Shulman said they were “deeply concerned about the public health implications of NES’ resumption of disconnections and we are worried about the school children whose virtual learning will become impossible due to such measures.”
Nashville public schools students will be returning to school from the holiday break virtually beginning Jan. 7, the letter noted.
The Mayor and Vice Mayor asked that the disconnection moratorium be extended, reconnection fees be waived and asked Jenkins to “make robust efforts to connect customers who have fallen behind in their utility payments with resources available through their nonprofit partners.” Their letter requested that NES deliver information on resources to help with payments to these customers’ front doors.
Jenkins formally responded Tuesday. NES will extend its moratorium on cut-offs until January 31 and waive reconnection fees through February 28, his letter to Cooper and Shulman said.
“NES will make robust efforts to connect customers who have fallen behind in their utility payments or who have been disconnected with resources from nonprofit partners,” the letter said.
The utility company will also call all at risk customers to confirm they have been provided information about available resources to help with bills, he said.
Jenkins said company officials have “reached out to community leaders to assist us with outreach efforts and we hope to have those meetings concluded and strategies developed by the ends of the week.”
The utility company will reach out to at-risk customers by phone between January 4 and January 29 in advance of disconnections, a spokesperson said via email. The calls will information customers about available assistance.
“NES believes this one-on-one phone outreach is more effective than a manual door drop,” a spokesperson said via email.
NES has already created a dedicated website with information on bill assistance options at www.NESHelps.com. NES created and distributed fliers to nonprofit organizations, including Metro Action Commission and Second Harvest Food bank, on December 29 outlining payment options and available assistance and included that information in bill inserts, emails, letters and social media as well as using online and traditional media to communicate, the spokesperson said.
Customers who need help in paying their bills can visit www.neshelps.com and www.needlink.com to apply for assistance or call 615-736-6900. Customers 75 and older or without a way to apply online can call 615-269-6835.