By Jin Ni
Rockbridge County residents who lost their jobs due to the pandemic may lose electricity and gas utilities this week as utility shut-offs begin. But local charities are increasing aid to those in need.
Virginia’s moratorium on utility shut-offs ended Monday. The shut-off ban has been renewed twice since it started March 16, just days after Virginia’s first positive COVID case.
A recent National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association study found that consumer utility debts will reach or exceed $24.3 billion by the end of the year.
“We have warned repeatedly that this moratorium is not sustainable indefinitely,” the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s electric utilities, said in a press release. “The mounting costs of unpaid bills must eventually be paid.”
But local community service organizations such as Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA) and 50 Ways Rockbridge said they have systems in place to assist families in need in the coming weeks.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we got a lot of calls about rent and utilities,” said Ellen Mayock, one of the members of the 50 Ways Board. “We suspect we’ll get more of those calls now.”
The group started as a political grassroots movement in the wake of President Trump’s election in 2016. Since then, 50 Ways has become a community hub for connecting people and resources.
With a network of more than 1,300 people, 50 Ways was able to mobilize volunteers during the pandemic to make masks, deliver groceries and even offer conversation with those isolated.
“And while we can’t pay for rent or utilities because that’s just not sustainable for 50 Ways, we do connect people with RARA and inform people about rent and utility relief,” Mayock said.
Since the onset of the pandemic, RARA has been helping out families with paying utilities or rent. Families can apply for financial assistance by calling RARA between 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, or by filling out a form online.
In the past year the organization has given out nearly $153,000 in aid, said Lindsey Perez, programs manager at RARA.
Funding is made available through numerous government agencies and Dominion Energy, Virginia’s primary energy provider.
On Aug. 13, Dominion announced that it would expand its EnergyShare program to provide a total of $14 million in aid to small businesses, churches and residential customers.
“For decades, EnergyShare has helped many in crisis get the financial help they need, and this pandemic has made it an even more crucial resource,” said Robert Blue, Dominion Energy Virginia’s co-chief operating officer and executive vice president.
Renters are getting conflicting messages on evictions. Virginia has not banned evictions, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order to halt evictions to prevent spread of the virus.
Perez suggested families reach out to other regional and local organizations for more help. The Virginia Housing Crisis Hotline is state-funded and helps people catch up with unpaid bills. RARA and Project Horizon can also help locals with an emergency hotel stay, in the case of eviction.
“We can meet the need,” Perez said. “It’s just a matter of people knowing to call us.”