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This story was updated on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, at 9 p.m. with additional information.

After suspending any service disconnections for unpaid bills amid the coronavirus pandemic over the past six months, Chattanooga utilities are planning to soon resume cutoffs for electricity, gas and water for those not paying their bills on time.

Starting Oct. 1, EPB will resume its normal business practices by beginning to disconnect customers who have not made arrangements to start paying past-due electric and fiber optics bills. Chattanooga Gas Co. and Tennessee American Water, both privately owned utilities regulated by the state, also plan to resume cutoffs for nonpayment of bills within the next month under a new regulatory order.

The local utilities suspended disconnections for unpaid bills in March when the coronavirus began shutting down much of the local economy and unemployment jumped in Chattanooga during April to a record high of 13.3%.

Last month, the Tennessee Public Utility Commission voted to lift its moratorium on service disconnections for nonpayment effective Aug. 29, as the economy showed signs of improvement and extra state aid was provided for those struggling to pay their utility bills. The moratorium was enacted in March by state regulators for private utilities operating in Tennessee to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 during the state of emergency invoked by Gov. Bill Lee.

Customers must be provided a minimum 30-day written notice of the utility's intent to resume its procedures for disconnection of service due to nonpayment of bills. Chattanooga Gas will resume cutoffs for nonpayment of bills on Sept. 28, and Tennessee American Water said it will resume water service cutoffs for unpaid bills on Oct. 7.

Tennessee Public Utility Commission Chairman Kenneth C. Hill said regulators "recognized the need to balance the unprecedented challenges customers and businesses" faced as the state transitioned to reopening the economy and utilities sought to recover their costs. Hill said the six-month moratorium "undoubtedly reduced the economic burden of countless businesses and households during a time of great uncertainty for our citizens."

Low-income people still struggling to pay electric or gas bills may qualify this month for federal assistance in paying their heating bills from both the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides up to $500 a year toward utility bills, and a special utility assistance program the state set up using part of its CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which adds up to $325 per household more toward paying utility bills.

Low-income home energy assistance money is still available this month for fiscal 2020 and a new fiscal year, with more aid available Oct. 1.

"Our goal is to work with each customer to help them keep their essential utilities on during this difficult time," said Angela Henry, head of EPB customer relations. "Fortunately, extra utility assistance and other options are now available so customers can avoid disconnection by calling now."

Where to get assistance

If you are having trouble paying your utility bill, assistance is available at:

* Chattanooga Gas Co. customers may call 866-643-4168 or apply online at chattanoogagas.com/energyassistance

* EPB assistance options are available by calling 423-648-1372.

* Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at 866-674-6327

* Tennessee American Water assistance at 1-800-272-1325

Henry said that when EPB suspended its power cutoffs in March, "we knew it was a short-term solution" to aid those who lost their jobs or income or were struggling with coronavirus complications and costs.

"Now that special COVID utility assistance is available in addition to the normal LIHEAP funding which has not been fully utilized for this year, we are in the best position to work with our customers to apply for assistance and keep their services on as they catch up on their bills," she said.

But a coalition of consumer and environmental groups has petitioned the Tennessee Valley Authority, which regulates and supplies power to EPB and 152 other local power companies, not to cut off customers unable to pay their monthly power bills.

"Disconnecting people from electricity during COVID and climate-induced heat waves is fatal and unconscionable," Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Wednesday. "When lives are literally on the line, bottom lines must be reconsidered. With their lush executive compensation packages, TVA needs to tighten its belt and Congress must release funds to ensure that EPB and other local power companies are financed to power the public through these storms."

The Tennessee Valley Authority has provided $1 billion in extra credit to local power companies this spring, and the TVA board voted last month to continue to provide another $2 million contribution to the Community Care Fund to aid local nonprofits help those hit hardest by the coronavirus. TVA also is providing a special $200 million Pandemic Relief Credit, equal to a 2.5% rate cut, for local power companies in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

But TVA is allowing local power companies the flexibility to decide how to use its rebates and credits.

Consumer groups want TVA as a regulator to limit its local power distributors from cutting service for those unable to pay their bills.

Daniel Tai, chief operating officer for Energy Alabama, said he believes that a moratorium on utility disconnections is still needed as the Tennessee Valley continues to struggle with the COVID-19 virus.

"Especially now that TVA has put forward a first step of $200 million in relief, local power companies must be aggressive in getting those dollars applied to customers at risk of disconnection," he said. "Disconnections are bad for public health and they're bad for public education."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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