A row of gas meters in a Goshen alley are shown. The moratorium on utility disconnections in Indiana will soon end. Roger W. Schneider | The Goshen News
A row of gas meters in a Goshen alley are shown. The moratorium on utility disconnections in Indiana will soon end. Roger W. Schneider | The Goshen News
GOSHEN — Brace yourselves. Another wave of economic disruption could be fast approaching.

In Elkhart County and across the state, residents hardest hit by COVID-19’s economic fallout are now facing yet another major hurdle as statewide moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures and utility shut-offs put in place during the pandemic’s infancy are set to begin expiring at the end of this month.

On March 19, as businesses began closing en masse to try and stem the spread of the highly contagious virus, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an executive order temporarily prohibiting residential eviction proceedings or foreclosure actions during the public health emergency.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for the Elkhart-Goshen area soared to more than 28% in April, eventually settling to around 11% in June — a figure still up sharply from the 2.7% unemployment rate reported back in February.

As the virus continued its rapid spread across the state, Holcomb in mid-June announced an extension of the state’s eviction and foreclosure moratorium through July 31. The ban had originally been slated to end at 11:59 p.m. June 30.

In a related move, Holcomb also rolled out the Indiana COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program, which earmarks $25 million in federal CARES Act funding for Hoosiers facing housing insecurity due to the pandemic. The program provides up to $500 in assistance for four months, totaling a maximum of $2,000 to eligible renters to help cover past and ongoing rent payments or late fees.

Applications are being accepted for the program at www.indianahousingnow.org.

UTILITY SHUT-OFFS

In a separate executive order issued on March 19, Holcomb also prohibited utility providers not under the jurisdiction of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission from discontinuing services such as gas and electricity, broadband, telecommunication, water and wastewater services to any customer in the state during the public health emergency.

While the moratorium on utilities shut-offs was set to expire June 30, Holcomb would go on to issue another executive order extending the moratorium until Aug. 14.

In related action, officials with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in late June agreed to abide by a similar shut-off moratorium until Aug. 14 for all utilities under their jurisdiction. Both orders also strongly encouraged utilities to offer extended payment plans to consumers lasting at least six months after the moratorium ends.

GOSHEN DELINQUENCIES UP

According to Kelly Saenz, manager of the Goshen Water & Sewer Office, the end of the disconnect moratorium could spell grim tidings for many city residents, as the department has seen a notable spike in customers falling behind on their payments since the virus’ arrival back in March.

“We’ve been trying to keep track of it. Just yesterday I ran a report, and for our customers that already should be disconnected, meaning we’ve already extended it for them, and they’re behind like four or five months, we’re at like 200 customers just in that category alone,” Saenz said. She noted that the department typically begins disconnect procedures after three months of nonpayment. “Then for customers that are potentially facing disconnect, looking at our next disconnect day, which would be Aug. 3, we were at like 400 customers.”

As a comparison, Saenz noted that in an average month, the department’s disconnects typically fall somewhere between 80 and 100 for residential customers, and between 40 and 60 for commercial customers.

“So, this is definitely higher,” she said.

PAYMENT PLANS OFFERED

With the end to the utility shut-off moratorium fast approaching, Saenz noted that her department has committed to offering customers extended payment plans in an effort to try and reduce the total number of potential disconnects.

“If they’re having issues paying their payments, we definitely would like them to reach out,” Saenz said. “And we always accept minimum payments. They don’t have to necessarily pay their entire balance before they’re shut off. So, any little bit helps along the way if they can pay down those balances.

“In a normal situation, for customers facing disconnect, a minimum payment would be the equivalent of one month of their total three month balance,” she added. “But unfortunately in this situation, if people have got themselves into about a five- or six-month balance, they’re going to have to come up with about three months worth of balance. So, those people, I would definitely try to see if there would be someone in the community who could help them, because those balances could be pretty high due to that.”

Along those lines, Saenz said she is in the process of setting up a meeting with several local aid agencies and nonprofits to try and coordinate aid efforts for the utility’s delinquent customers.

“We do have a lot of agencies throughout the community that are offering assistance,” Saenz said. “And if fact, I’m hoping to set up a meeting with those agencies next week so we can kind of see and streamline this process, because we’ve never really faced this many disconnects before.”

TOWNSHIP TRUSTEES

One such option available to people struggling financially are the various township trustee offices located throughout the county.

According to Concord Township Trustee James Weeber, demand for his office’s services, which include rent, food, and utilities assistance, has actually seen a decline in the months following COVID-19’s arrival, a fact which he attributes in large part to the influx of COVID-related stimulus funding granted through legislation such as the CARES Act, as well as the extra $600 per week in federal unemployment insurance authorized for Americans who lost work as a result of the pandemic.

However, with that extra $600 per week in unemployment insurance expiring today, coupled with the upcoming expiration of the state’s various eviction, foreclosure and utility disconnect moratoriums, Weeber said he anticipates his office is about to get much busier.

“As these moratoriums ease up, we expect to see more need presented here at the office,” Weeber said from his office Thursday afternoon.

Charity Wasson, clerk in the trustee’s office, agreed, though she doesn’t think that increased need will be anything the office can’t handle.

“I think that we are definitely going to see an increase in clients, but I don’t think it’s going to be anything above and beyond,” Wasson said, noting that the office has an annual budget of about $3.9 million. “We’re a big township, bigger than most, so we’re usually pretty busy. So, I think that we’ll be able to handle all the influx of people that we get. We’re just kind of waiting for the wave.”

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