Over the past year, Denton Municipal Electric has shut off electricity to more than 5,200 residential customers — a number considered “high” even within the utility itself.
But it’s “attributable to the effects of the pandemic,” said Christa Foster, DME’s customer service manager. “The spike in September compared to August was due to shut-offs not beginning in a significant way until mid-August.”
From Sept. 24, 2019, to Sept. 24, 2020, DME terminated 5,231 accounts. During that period, before the pandemic, the month with most shut-offs was January, with 855. Shut-offs dropped by more than half the following month, to 403. In March, that number was 410. But from April to July, during some of the worst impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, no customers had their electricity cut off.
“The city of Denton adopted a series of disaster declarations in response to the pandemic beginning on March 13, 2020, and continuing through the end of this calendar year,” city spokesperson Ryan Adams said. “The first disaster declaration and order provided for the suspension of utility shut-offs for nonpayment. The Seventh Order of Council relating to the pandemic ended the mandated suspension of shut-offs at the end of June.”
But Denton City Council members later extended the mandate until August.
“The majority of shut-offs that were suspended due to the pandemic did not occur until August and September,” Adams said.
When shut-offs did resume in August, 791 customers lost power. The following month, 952 accounts were shut off.
“While it has been a high number of shut-offs, the city has seen most of these residents quickly reconnect their services, taking advantage of utility assistance programs and the waiving of interruption fees by the city,” Foster said.
Gary Henderson, president and CEO of the United Way of Denton County, said his agency makes utility assistance payments directly to landlords or property managers or to DME.
“They have to provide documentation for this program, and we send a payment to Denton Municipal Electric on their behalf,” he said. “It’s the same process for nonprofits.”
But when a resident applies through a nonprofit, that organization submits the paperwork to United Way, which then make the payment to DME following approval.
“We require the entity waive late fees in good faith, and we catch up the household,” Henderson said. “I will say they have done an outstanding job of waiving those fees.”
In 2019, DME shut off 5,194 accounts. That number this year, through September, is 3,148.
“It’s really hard to tell how much of that is due to the COVID shutdown,” Denton City Council member Jesse Davis said.
During a work session in September, council members asked DME officials about how they determine when to terminate service for customers who had not paid their bills on time and the options the utility has to maintain and restore service.
“The city also maintains relationships with community organizations that provide utility assistance, such as Interfaith Ministries and United Way of Denton County, and connects customers in need to these organizations,” Adams said in an email. “When we submit their referral, we exempt the customer from interruption for the time it takes to go through the process. Since the start of the pandemic, the city has targeted over $200,000 of funding to Interfaith Ministries to provide utility assistance for our customers. Additionally, CARES Act dollars are also available through Denton County.”
He also said that customers experiencing income loss are encouraged to make payment arrangements with DME.
“In addition to payment plans and utility assistance, the city also recommends customers consider ‘Pay as You Go’ billing in order to avoid deposits and fees and decrease the amount needed to restore an account if the service is interrupted for nonpayment,” Adams said. “Since resumption of disconnections in August, the city has also waived late fees, reconnection fees and interest to help our customers stay current with their bills.”
Adams said DME issues courtesy reminders seven to nine business days after bills are due.
“Additionally, [a] second bill is sent out with a prominent written notice on it that indicates they are past due, eligible for service interruption and requests that the customer contact the city,” Adams said. “If we have not been contacted or sufficient payment has not been made three to five business days after the issuance of the written notice, we perform a second courtesy call.”
Shut-offs generally happen two to three business days following the second courtesy call. It takes three to four weeks after the due date for service to be interrupted.
DME is owned by the city.
It is a “not-for-profit public power utility that serves over 53,000 customers,” said Tony Puente, executive manager of utilities. “As a municipally owned utility and unlike an investor-owned utility, rates charged by DME are locally controlled and set by the City Council of the city of Denton, residents’ elected representatives.”
The 2020-21 fiscal year budget includes $232 million in revenue for the electric fund and just over $231 million in expenditures. Puente said profits are used to make investments in the local system “to improve reliability and to provide competitive and stable rates for our customers.”