When it comes to the financial toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on Northland residents, the numbers speak for themselves.
About 3,000 customers of Comfort Systems, a division of Duluth's public works and utilities department, recently received notices for unpaid utility bills. That's more than triple the 922 delinquency notices sent out to Duluth residents in December 2019.
Collectively, Comfort Systems customers are more than $1.9 million in arrears.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Power reports that about 14,000 of its Northland household customers' bills are now past due. That represents about 13% of the utility's residential customer base, said Tina Koecher, manager of customer experience operations for the Duluth-based utility company. She said the local difficulties paying utility bills fit within a national trend.
So far this winter, Minnesota Power's customers have racked up nearly $4 million in overdue bills — about double the amount residential customers owed in past-due payments at this time last year.
While the average outstanding residential customer balance is about $275, Koecher said the fastest-growing category of delinquency is for households that are 90 days or more behind on their payments to Minnesota Power.
So some of the past-due bills are growing much larger.
"We're seeing more customers with not only past-due balances but past-due balances for longer, which isn't a total surprise in a pandemic circumstance," Koecher said.
Duluth City Council President Gary Anderson said that while Minnesota's Cold Weather Rule should protect people from having their heat shut off before April 15, he worries about what comes next. "Then, people are going to be really in trouble," he said.
"So, it's better to start to deal with it now, if you can," Anderson said. "If people get behind a whole year or whatever, then the possibility of getting caught back up is just overwhelming."
Courtney Gallo, a utility operations paralegal for Comfort Systems, couldn't agree more.
"Eventually, it's all going to come due. The bills aren't going to go away," she said. "And we don't want people to dig themselves a hole that they can't get out of."
But Gallo stressed that help is available and urged people who are behind on their utility bills to call. She said Comfort Systems staff can direct people to different forms of assistance that may be available and will also work with customers to fashion manageable long-term repayment plans.
Koecher said that customers who invoke the Cold Weather Rule cannot be required to spend more than 10% of their income on utilities.
With additional COVID-19 protections in place, Minnesota Power isn't charging any late payment fees or doing any disconnections.
In essence, Koecher said that with pandemic protections in play on top of last year's Cold Weather Rule, "We could see customers building balances for up to 18 months with no repercussions from a disconnection-of-services perspective and no prompts for urgent action, because we're not sending disconnection notices."
That could lead to some fat bills growing even bigger. "So, any word that we can get out there to really encourage customers to call and work with us is so greatly appreciated," she said.
Koecher said Minnesota Power has a number of customers enrolled in an affordability program that offers discounts to seniors, disabled people and those enrolled in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Some other customers qualify for a percent-of-income affordability discount that typically reduces electric bills to 3% or less their household income.
Gallo said that many of the current utility bill hardships were to be expected.
"We want to get people signed up for energy assistance who maybe didn't think they were eligible before. We have a lot of people who are eligible for resources, and they've been eligible for a long time, but they never tried," Gallo said.
"We understand what's going on. We're all human, too. We're all dealing with the new normal. So, we don't want people to be fearful to call," Gallo said. "We want people to call. We want to get them on payment plans. And we want them to start on the road back to stability."