NEW ORLEANS - The New Orleans City Council is poised to approve the creation of a $22M direct bill assistance program for unemployed Entergy customers. The fund represents the largest single local source of direct assistance available to New Orleanians.
"The economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have created an unprecedented crisis for our community. That's why I believe we must have an unprecedented response to give a lifeline for our most impacted people," said Utilities Committee Chair Helena Moreno. "The City Council Cares' (CCC) $22M in direct bill assistance will cushion the economic damage our community is suffering with no additional costs. In fact, it will actually save all ratepayers money on their bills."
In order to qualify for this bill assistance, current Entergy customers would simply have to submit proof of unemployment since March 29. Those approved would then receive $400 of direct credits on their Entergy bills, or about $100 a month. The average Entergy bill is about $110 a month, meaning this program could cover 90% of that monthly bill. The program would also waive late fees accumulated during the affected period.
Councilmember Moreno continued, "This is good news. Bill credits of this size and scope don't just help those struggling with their bills. They help mitigate and avoid future added costs or rate increases due to the pandemic for all Entergy New Orleans customers. The company has lost tens of millions of dollars due to up to 40% of their customers being behind on their bills. Unpaid bills end up costing all of us through rate hikes - by providing this assistance, we're saving all ratepayers money. It's a win-win."
"In the very early days of the stay at home orders and forced quarantine we heard from our communities about their struggles to make ends meet and fears that they would not survive if forced to choose between basic necessities and bills. No New Orleanian should have to hit rock bottom due to a disaster over which they had no control. Trying moments like these require those who can, to do a little more, to help make sure we all make it to the other side of this pandemic. While we constantly work on ways to support the families of New Orleans, the Council Cares bill assistance program is one way we hope to support our people who suffered loss of employment and hardship during this crisis as they rebuild their lives. Our work is not done," said Council President Jason Williams.
"We have a choice. We can either work to keep utility rates static by allocating this money now to reduce the amount owed for delinquencies by residents who have factually shown a COVID-related impact, or risk subjecting all customers to higher rates in the future. The first option includes built-in accountability, makes more sense, and is truly more equitable and efficient," said District "A" Councilmember Joe Giarrusso.
"The Council, together with Entergy, is taking a very important step to help out the residents of our city. These are tough economic times, so taking this step is an important one to lighten the burden as best we can. It is our hope that providing this relief for these ratepayers will open an opportunity to lessen the burden as we all seek to support our families. Together we will continue to get through this pandemic and these trying times," said District "B" Councilmember Jay H. Banks.
"Tens of thousands of families in New Orleans are facing many challenges to cope with the COVID-19 virus. Some have lost their jobs or have had their hours reduced, and these circumstances can lead to difficulty in paying their utility bills. I believe the Council's Cares billing assistance program will go a long way in providing so much needed relief during these tumultuous times," said District "C" Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
"Thousands of Entergy New Orleans customers have fallen behind on payments since the start of COVID-19. The City Council CARES program will provide much-needed help to unemployed, struggling customers by reducing their unpaid balances. Together, we will continue to get through this," said District "D" Councilmember Jared C. Brossett.
The funding for CCC comes from a federal legal settlement and excess disaster preparedness reserves, which the Council - as Entergy New Orleans' sole regulator under the Charter and established law - has the authority to utilize for a relief package such as this one. Even after the enactment of this program, Entergy New Orleans will maintain over $67M in storm reserves in case of any further disaster.
People interested in this program will be asked to provide proof of unemployment benefits gained consistent with the Federal CARES Act retroactive date of March 29. Those benefits - and therefore the CCC - include salaried workers, and for the first time, "gig" and 1099 workers who are often ineligible for benefits.
The CCC is expected to go live in early summer, with the first bill credits delivered in time for the July billing cycle. Customers will be notified by paper bill-insert, text message, web presence, social media and other means when the program goes live. The Council expects formal communication from Entergy to launch sometime in the next 30 days.