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The Burlington County Board of Commissioners voiced their opposition to unnecessary rate hikes proposed by large utility companies, arguing that ratepayers should not be required to pay more for basic-necessities like heat, water and electricity during the still ongoing COVID-19 crisis and when company shareholders are being paid out large dividends.
“At a time when most of our residents and small businesses are still struggling to get back on their feet, utilities like South Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas and Atlantic City Electric are lining up in front of the Board of Public Utilities to ask for hefty rate hikes,” said Commissioner Director Felicia Hopson. “This is unacceptable and must not go unchallenged. The BPU should refuse to even consider these increases until the current crisis ends and when utility companies show that all other revenue streams have been exhausted.”
The Commissioners plan to express their opposition to the increases in a resolution scheduled to be voted on by the full Board Wednesday evening during their regular meeting. The resolution objects to the rate increases requested by South Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas and Atlantic City Electric in recent filings with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and calls for the creation of a COVID-19 arrearage forgiveness program to assist both commercial and residential customers who are behind in their payments.
New Jersey currently has a moratorium in place that prevents utilities from shutting off any customers gas, electric, water and internet services until at least June 30. However, while customers are in no immediate danger of losing service, more than 1.2 million New Jerseyans are behind in their bills and collectively owe more than $700 million to the utilities.
Despite this looming crisis, South Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas and Atlantic City Electric have each filed for rate increases to recover costs for infrastructure improvements and upgrades.
According to their filings, South Jersey Gas is asking for BPU approval to recover $742.5 million over five years, costing the average residential customer’s bill to rise about 14% or around $226.
New Jersey Natural Gas is seeking a $165.7 million annual increase in its base rates to recover costs associated with infrastructure upgrades, including the controversial Southern Reliability Link pipeline through northern Burlington County, Monmouth and Ocean counties. If approved, the increase would mean the average customer would pay about $28 more each month, according to the gas company.
Atlantic City Electric is seeking a $67 million adjustment in its rate to recover the costs of enhancement work over the last two years. If approved, the typical residential customer is expected to pay nearly 7% more a month or about $9.23.
All three utilities have service territory within Burlington County.
South Jersey Gas’ territory covers all or portions of Evesham, Medford Lakes, Medford, Shamong, Southampton, Tabernacle and Woodland.
Atlantic City Electric’s territory covers all or portions of Bass River, Evesham, Medford, Shamong, Southampton, Tabernacle, Washington Township and Woodland.
New Jersey Natural Gas serves Burlington County homes and businesses in Bass River and Washington Township.
“These increases will impact thousands of Burlington County residents and small businesses at a time when they can least afford it,” said Commissioner Deputy Director Dan O’Connell. “While our Board supports infrastructure improvements and believes strongly that many of these projects are needed and critically important, we cannot abide by the utilities seeking to recoup these costs on the backs of ratepayers in the midst of a pandemic and with more than a million New Jersey customers already behind on their monthly bills.”
The Commissioners said rate increases of any kind should be shelved until the current crisis subsides and a state program is put in place to provide forgiveness for overdue payments. They also called on state regulators to undertake comprehensive reviews of the utilities’ finances, including both reserves and dividends paid to shareholders, before greenlighting any rate increases.
A recent earnings statement from South Jersey Industries, the parent company of South Jersey Gas, indicated the company was paying a $2.04 annual dividend per share for a more than 3.24% yield.
“We have nothing against investors profiting, but not when those profits are put above ratepayers who are suffering,” added Hopson. “It’s time for all our South Jersey lawmakers to take a stand and tell the BPU to halt all proceedings until the current crisis has ended and our economy has completely recovered.”