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Pandemic utility bills coming due in Northland; shutoffs could start this month

Many households that have fallen behind on gas, water and electric bills face the looming prospect of discontinued service.

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A gauge shows how much gas is being pushed through the regulator station at the corner of Riveness and Morris Thomas roads in Hermantown on Feb. 24, 2021. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Tyler Schank

Tasked with the duty of informing customers that their water and gas service soon could be cut unless they pay off overdue utility bills, Courtney Gallo doesn't exactly relish her job as a paralegal for Comfort Systems these days.

"Nobody enjoys this," she said. “We know that this is uncomfortable. We know that it’s stressful. We know that it’s probably weighing on a lot of people.”

But about 2,000 Duluth households have fallen behind on their utility bills, amassing a debt to the city that now tops $1 million, and pandemic protections that prevented service disconnections are beginning to fade away.

Minnesota Power faces a similar dilemma, according to Tina Koecher, the company's manager of customer experience operations. There, about 17,500 customers have rung up nearly $7 million in unpaid electric bills since the COVID-19 outbreak struck the Northland.

Roughly 12% of Minnesota Power's customers are in arrears on their bills, which isn't too far out of the ordinary. But the amount and the age of the debt households have incurred is roughly double what the electric company was used to seeing in pre-pandemic days, Koecher said.

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But help is available. Both Gallo and Koecher noted that there are plenty of resources to help people behind on their rent and/or utility bills.

Koecher said calling the United Way’s 211 helpline can be a good place to start. She also pointed to the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, the Salvation Army, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program as prospective sources of assistance.

Gallo has been referring many people to RentHelpMN , and said: “We’re lucky in Duluth that we have two agencies locally — One Roof Community Housing and AICHO (the American Indian Community Housing Organization) — who are able to help people navigate through the application.”

As of July 1, those organizations had helped 749 households in St. Louis County submit requests for $3.45 million in rental assistance, more than $290,000 in utility payments and $7,400 for trash service.

But the need is far greater, as an estimated 2,685 St. Louis County households are behind on rent to the combined tune of more than $6.7 million, with an average estimated back rent of just over $2,500 per household.

“We’re trying to get people to apply as soon as possible because it isn’t just going to be around forever,” Gallo said. Meanwhile, she noted deadlines are looming, with Comfort Systems threatening to begin shutting off service to some overdue customers as soon as July 26.

Koecher said Minnesota Power is providing customers with at least 60 days notice before disconnecting service, with the first such warnings mailed in June.

“Of course, our preference is: We don’t want to disconnect anyone. But this gives folks time to get connected with resources. It provides them with a sense of urgency, we hope. And it allows them time to contact us and hopefully set up some sort of a payment agreement,” she said.

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As the end of Minnesota’s eviction moratorium nears and deferred utility payments draw to a close, interest in RentHelpMN has been building, said Noah Hobbs, One Roof’s lending director.

“We’re getting probably 20 to 30 calls a day now. And that’s up from five to 10 probably three to five days ago,” Hobbs said. “So, there’s definitely more interest.”

“If you earn 80% or less of the area median income, make an application, and you will be protected at least until June of 2022 to get caught up on your rent and utilities,” he said. “So, those folks should apply, and I expect they will be applying in increased numbers, the more this information gets out there.”

One Roof already has hired another full-time navigator to help people apply for RentHelpMN assistance and Hobbs said, “as capacity requires we can staff up a couple more folks also.”

He noted that in addition to serving Duluth, One Roof also has been providing outreach services to the Range.

For assistance accessing RentHelpMN, call One Roof Community Housing at 218-727-5372 or AICHO at 218-722-7225.

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