Local officials are calling for federal help to weather the economic fallout of the pandemic, saying the worst case scenario would mean cutting into essential services municipalities provide.
“This is of a scale that we're not just talking about cutting back services to our most needy, we're talking about needing to cut into basic services that local government provides,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said at a Wednesday news conference.
She said the federal HEROES Act would help municipal governments stay above water. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in May, but has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Rhodes-Conway said Wisconsin’s Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin has been open to passing an additional stimulus bill.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said during an interview with WPR that he wanted to see unspent funds disbursed before the Senate took up an additional stimulus bill. He also pushed for a more targeted approach to allocating federal funds, saying he would not vote to spend “even a dime more” before those issues were addressed.
Madison Common Council President Sheri Carter said local officials would continue to pressure federal officials for more funds.
“We will not stop,” she said. “The federal government and the state has got to [step] up during this horrific time of being in a pandemic.”
PSC to Allow Disconnections
Rhodes-Conway also called on the state’s Public Service Commission to continue its moratorium, which prevented utilities from shutting off services during the pandemic.
Utilities can start sending disconnection notices Wednesday, and resume shut offs July 25.
“You can't get a job if you can't charge your phone or your computer, online schooling is impossible without access to broadband and electricity and losing access to a fan or air conditioning during a hot summer when many of our public cooling centers are closed is just downright dangerous,” she said.
In a response, a commission spokesperson said utilities must continue to suspend disconnections during heat emergencies. He added that those testing positive for COVID-19 are prevented from having their utilities shut off for 21 days, and an additional 21 days if they remain under quarantine.
Commission chair Rebecca Valcq said in a statement Wednesday that the PSC would monitor customers’ ability to access utilities, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
“The communities being hit the hardest by COVID-19 are often the same ones that have been disproportionally impacted economically. Disconnected utility service impedes a person's ability to stay home, social distance, and wash hands,” she said.
According to data the commission collected from the utility companies in the spring, roughly 16% of utility customers statewide were behind on their payments during the early stages of the pandemic--though that figure can vary depending on the specific utility. Milwaukee Water Works listed 52% of residential customers as delinquent on payments as of early March.
In the release, the commission encouraged Wisconsinites who might be disconnected to reach an agreed payment plan with their utility, or file a complaint with the PSC if an agreement cannot be reached.