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Thousands of Minnesotans Unable to Pay Utility Bills in Pandemic

The Minnesota Department of Health makes sure to feed the media the latest figures on how many Minnesotans test positive for the coronavirus and the number of COVID-related deaths. But there are other statistics that reveal the far-reaching impact of the pandemic on state residents that will never be released at the MDH briefings.

The Duluth News Tribune finds that thousands of northern Minnesotans have fallen behind on their utility bill payments, a reflection of the financial hardship many face due to the economic downturn, including Gov. Tim Walz’s devastating restrictions on some businesses and employees.

When it comes to the financial toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on Northland residents, the numbers speak for themselves.

About 3,000 customers of Comfort Systems, a division of Duluth’s public works and utilities department, recently received notices for unpaid utility bills. That’s more than triple the 922 delinquency notices sent out to Duluth residents in December 2019.

Collectively, Comfort Systems customers are more than $1.9 million in arrears.

The same holds true at Minnesota Power, where twice as many customers have fallen behind on their bills compared to a year ago. There are programs to subsidize those in need and spread out payments over time. But an increasing number fail to pay anything at all.

While the average outstanding residential customer balance is about $275, Koecher said the fastest-growing category of delinquency is for households that are 90 days or more behind on their payments to Minnesota Power.

So some of the past-due bills are growing much larger.

“We’re seeing more customers with not only past-due balances but past-due balances for longer, which isn’t a total surprise in a pandemic circumstance,” Koecher said.

The vaccine may ultimately contain the virus. But there’s no way to inoculate the thousands who forgo paying their power bills, regardless of whether they’re out of work due to the pandemic or state restrictions that undermine their ability to earn a living.

Duluth City Council President Gary Anderson said that while Minnesota’s Cold Weather Rule should protect people from having their heat shut off before April 15, he worries about what comes next. “Then, people are going to be really in trouble,” he said.

“So, it’s better to start to deal with it now, if you can,” Anderson said. “If people get behind a whole year or whatever, then the possibility of getting caught back up is just overwhelming.”

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