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News >  Spokane

Utilities pause shutoffs as state prepares for financial impacts of COVID-19

A crew from Avista Utilities repairs power lines in November 2015. The company announced Monday it won’t cut off power for customers who can’t pay their bills as the COVID-19 pandemic leads to layoffs, forces many to work from home and pushes children out of schools, straining affordable day care options. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
A crew from Avista Utilities repairs power lines in November 2015. The company announced Monday it won’t cut off power for customers who can’t pay their bills as the COVID-19 pandemic leads to layoffs, forces many to work from home and pushes children out of schools, straining affordable day care options. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rebecca White and Chad Sokol The Spokesman-Review

Spokane residents will get a temporary reprieve from unpaid utility bills, and some local leaders want to extend lenience to those facing evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Avista Utilities announced Monday it won’t cut off power for customers who can’t pay their bills as the outbreak leads to layoffs, forces many to work from home and pushes children out of schools, straining affordable day care options.

“The power will stay on, and the gas will continue to flow,” said Dennis Vermillion, Avista’s president and CEO.

The city of Spokane also promised not to shut off water until further notice if customers can’t pay their utility bills. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the city also will continue picking up garbage if a customer can’t afford it.

“Today, we are helping to ensure that our citizens will have access to clean and safe water for drinking, hand washing and keeping their families safe,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said in a statement.

Other local utilities are monitoring the situation, with some following Avista’s lead.

“We are making the same commitment,” said BiJay Adams, general manager of the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District. “We’re not going to be doing water shutoffs, and we’ll be working with our customers on late fees and stuff like that.”

Catherine Cronin, a spokeswoman for Vera Water and Power, which serves about 25,000 Spokane Valley residents, said the utility rarely shuts off water in normal circumstances. Vera isn’t making any blanket promises amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but Cronin said the utility would work with customers who raise concerns about their ability to pay.

“Anybody who talks to us, we’ll work with them,” Cronin said. “We want to keep the lights on – that’s our goal. Same with the water.”

Likewise, Andy Barth, a spokesman for Inland Power and Light, which serves 13 counties in Eastern Washington, said the utility is working with customers with concerns about COVID-19 in mind.

Avista, Liberty Lake, Vera and Inland Power all have closed their offices to the public to protect employees. They are asking customers to pay their bills online or by phone, mail or other means. Vermillion said most Avista customer service employees are working from home but can provide assistance over the phone.

As Washington residents prepare to hunker down in their homes, some local leaders, including Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, are calling for a moratorium on evictions.

“I really don’t want to put people out onto the street and cause even more of a homeless issue for our citizens at a time when our homeless population is the most impacted,” Knezovich said during a news conference Monday.

Knezovich said he knows a moratorium would impact property owners. He said he’s working with county staff to research the issue and, if a moratorium seems feasible, he will seek approval from the county commissioners.

“I know I’m going to be impacting a family by evicting them,” he said. “Evicting them at this time may be the worse thing we could do for the community.”

County Commissioner Al French did not commit to pausing evictions but said the county must “look at every opportunity” to assist the most vulnerable members of society.

“As this point, everything’s on the table because this is a unique time,” French said. “We need to be creative, we need to be collaborative and together we’ll get through this.”

In a Facebook post last week, Burke called for a moratorium on both evictions and utility shutoffs, saying they’re needed to keep people healthy.

“As a community, we are only as safe as the most vulnerable among us,” she wrote. “Paychecks are already being reduced for many working people across our state, fundamentally impacting their ability to pay for rent and other necessities.”

Woodward on Monday did not pledge any support for pausing evictions, saying a state moratorium could be in the works.

“We’ll talk about that when it comes,” she said.

On Saturday, Councilman Michael Cathcart called on banks to allow mortgage holders to defer mortgage payments, interest free, for up to 60 days.

That, Cathcart argued, would provide property owners, including landlords and single-family homeowners, flexibility during the economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.

Spokesman-Review reporter Adam Shanks contributed to this story.

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