Faced with widespread complaints about skyrocketing utility bills, a City Council committee on Tuesday voted to impose a moratorium on Entergy New Orleans service shutoffs and late fees until Nov. 1.
The moratorium will provide temporary relief to New Orleans customers who have fallen behind on payments. Bills have been especially high as of late because of heavy air conditioner use, high natural gas prices and the temporary shutdown of a nuclear plant that provides much of the utility's electricity.
City Council Vice President JP Morrell, chair of the Utility Committee, said Tuesday that the moratorium is only a temporary solution to a larger problem.
"The moratorium is not a win. It's a stopgap measure," Morrell said. "It is a public health issue, where we cannot have people in this heat in their homes expiring because it is too hot to live."
Tuesday's favorable committee vote places the moratorium on the consent agenda for the full City Council's Aug. 4 meeting, where it is expected to pass without opposition.
In a statement, Entergy New Orleans said it agreed with the move and pledged to implement the halt.
"We are very sensitive to the challenges our customers are facing during this historic period of inflation, rising national energy costs, and record electricity usage," said Lee Sabatini, a utility spokesperson. "We are aligned with the Council on the need to provide assistance and will implement the Council's shut-off moratorium."
Speaking to the council on Tuesday, Entergy New Orleans CEO Deanna Rodriguez urged customers in trouble to reach out to the utility to discuss payment plans and bill help.
Separately, the Entergy Corp. holding company said that it will commit $10 million to help with bill payment programs for residential customers across all of its operating companies. The company will also voluntarily waive late fees at all companies, it said in a statement.
Morrell said one of the factors behind the moratorium is the ongoing shutdown of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, which Entergy relies on for relatively low-cost electricity. That could translate into even higher bills in the future, he said.
The council has instructed its regulatory office and energy advisers to look into why customer bills are "spiraling," according to Morrell. Several residents who spoke during the public comment period of the hearing expressed doubt about the accuracy of Entergy's bills.
Cindy Moffett said her bill has tripled in recent months. She called on the council to come up with a long-term solution.
"What happens when the moratorium goes away and it's the winter?" she said. "We're going to have this same old issue, because the bills are going to be elevated because of our heat usage."
Several council members warned the public that they must try to keep up with their bills even during the moratorium in order to avoid owing too much in back bills.
"Don't get too far behind," said District B Council member Lesli Harris. "If you can make a payment, make a payment."