Salem has large pockets of residents behind on utilities. New programs offer relief

Patience and social distancing are two requirements for cashing in bottles and cans at Salem’s BottleDrop centers. Customers cash in at the center on Northeast Commercial Street on Friday, May 1. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Central and northeast Salem has more residents struggling to pay their electricity bills than other areas of the state, according to documents from the state Public Utility Commission.

The 97301 ZIP code, which includes central and northeast Salem, had 3,887 Portland General Electric residential customers behind on their electric bills by at least a month — more than any other ZIP code in the state. Twenty percent of the total customers in the ZIP code were behind, with an average amount of $326 owed.

That’s in line with the $339 average past-due amount owed for the 27 ZIP codes covered by the utility. The utility has 94,828 customers behind on bills, nearly 12% of its customers. 

Last week the Oregon Public Utility Commission signed off on debt-relief programs for five investor-owned utility companies including NW Natural. In February, the commission approved a separate debt-relief program for Portland General Electric, which also serves Salem.

The relief comes as utility companies across the state have $76 million owed in past-due utility bills.

For NW Natural, there are 1,028 accounts in the 97301 ZIP code at least a month behind on payments. While ZIP codes in the Portland area have more past-due NW Natural accounts, 97301 has the highest of any in Marion County. The commission didn’t have a percentage of customers behind, but the average amount owed for the ZIP code is $168. The average past-due amount owed for the 45 ZIP codes covered by the utility is $163.

“It’s tough to pinpoint any one specific factor for why any given zip code may have a higher percentage of residential customers in arrears than another,” said Portland General Electric spokeswoman Andrea Platt in an email.

But Platt pointed to Oregon Health Authority data showing that the 97301 ZIP code has had a higher rate of Covid infections than other areas. She also pointed to data from the Oregon Public Utility Commission showing the ZIP code has a wealth index of 42, with 100 being the national average. She said that could indicate more people living in the ZIP code have jobs that’ve been adversely affected by the pandemic.

As of Tuesday afternoon, NW Natural did not respond to an email asking why the ZIP code has a high number of past due bills.

U.S. Census data shows the median household income for the 97301 ZIP code is $43,841, about two-thirds of the $62,818 median income for the Salem area. The ZIP code is also 37% Hispanic, higher than the 24% for the Salem area and 13% for Oregon.

Documents show that the 97305 ZIP code — which includes much of northeast Salem, Hayesville and surrounding areas — has a higher number of residents behind on utility bills than the rest of Marion County.

There are 3,131 Portland General Electric residential customers at least a month behind on their bill or 20% of the ZIP code’s total customers, with an average amount owed of $343. NW Natural has 665 accounts in the 97305 ZIP that are in the red. The average amount owed is $192.

U.S. Census data shows that the 97305 ZIP code is also less affluent than the rest of Marion County. The median household income for the ZIP code is $52,533 and 41% Hispanic.

According to the Oregon Public Utility Commission, the debt-relief programs must be in place no later than Thursday, April 1. NW Natural has until May 3.

Portland General Electric’s program includes matching payments, three-month payment plans, one-time payments of up to $500 for qualifying customers and assistance. Details can be found on Portland General Electric’s website or by calling 800-542-8818.

NW Natural is also offering customers a match of back payments, as well as a one-time grant of up to $300 in debt relief for qualifying customers. Each NW Natural customer can receive up to $1,200 in financial aid. More information is available by calling 800-422-4012.

Salem Electric, which has about 20,000 accounts, is a member-owned cooperative that is not regulated by the commission. The cooperative has set up its own financial assistance program

“As Oregonians continue to be financially impacted by the pandemic, these debt relief programs are intended to keep those who need the most help connected to essential utility services without fear of past due balances or interruptions in service,” said Megan Decker, chair of the Oregon Public Utility Commission, in a statement.

The pandemic and the accompanying economic disruption have caused the number of Oregonians with past-due balances to rise precipitously. As of January, there were 91,000 customers of investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities with past-due balances, an increase of 252% from the same time last year, according to the commission. The total amount owed on past-due utility bills is $76.3 million, a 155% increase from January 2020.

Last June, the commission began looking into the effects of the pandemic on utility customers. That resulted in a report released in September identifying utility customer debt as an issue, according to commission spokeswoman Kandi Young. The commission followed up in November with an order directing investor-owned utilities to establish debt programs before they can disconnect customers.

According to a press release, the programs are financed with 1% of each utility’s 2019 retail revenues. That pencils out to about $39 million in total available funding for six investor-owned eclectic and natural gas utilities.

There is currently a moratorium on disconnections for electric and natural gas customers of investor-owned utilities through June 30. The moratorium will be discussed during a special public meeting in May. 

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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