As many New Jerseyans continue to recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, paying monthly utility bills for some has been quite a challenge.

In an effort to help, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) and the Department of Community Affairs have announced new and expanded efforts to provide financial assistance as part of "Utility Assistance Week," which runs until Oct. 22.

"As a result of this economic impact, utility bill arrearages have grown to historic levels with hundreds of thousands of customers unable to meet monthly utility bill obligations," said Joseph L. Fiordaliso, NJBPU president.

The state has been ramping up promotion of their assistance and deferred payment programs to reach customers who may not be aware that assistance for past-due utility bills is available.

The grace period on utility shutoffs ends Dec. 31, 2021. That is when utilities can be disconnected for non-payment.

New Jerseyans who are having trouble paying their utility bills are encouraged to apply for assistance.

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Assistance programs available

The NJBPU has also temporarily expanded its Universal Service Fund (USF) program to moderate-income families who are encountering a financial setback during the pandemic.

Under the program, a family of four can make up to $106,000 per year and qualify for the program. USF covers energy costs over a certain percentage of income, depending on the heat source, up to a cap of $2,160 per year.

USF provides monthly credits on electric and gas bills and also a pathway to energy debt forgiveness through its Fresh Start Program. It provides credit of up to $180 per month on gas and electric bills for households at or below 400% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Fresh Start customers provides unlimited forgiveness of overdue electric and gas bills for anyone with an overdue balance of $60 or more. Fresh Start customers need to pay their current bills in full each month for 12 consecutive months to earn full forgiveness on pre-existing overdue balances.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federal program that helps households at or below 60% of the State Median Income ($77,272 for a family of four) pay for heating costs, medically-necessary cooling expenses in the summer, emergency grants to prevent service shutoffs and energy debt forgiveness.

To apply for USF and LIHEAP, go to https://njdca-housing/dynamics365portals.us/en-US/dcaid-services/

Payment Assistance for Gas and Electric (PAGE) provides electric and/or gas grants of up to $700 to customers with overdue balances. Households must have an overdue balance of at least $100 and should not have $15,000 or more in liquid assets.

The Lifeline Utility Assistance Program provides an annual $225 grant for electric and gas costs to seniors and the disabled. Income limits are set at less than $28,769 for a single person or at $35,270 for married couples. Apply at aging.nj.gov or call the hotline at 1-800-792-9745.

With New Jersey American Water Company, Aqua NJ and SUEZ New Jersey, customers can apply for grants with the nonprofit New Jersey SHARES at www.njshares.org.

NJBPU's Division of Customer Assistance investigates consumer complaints, negotiates fair payment arrangements on behalf of customers and prevent utility shutoffs. Customers can call the hotline at 1-800-624-0241 or visit www.nj.gov/bpu.

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