For the first time in 18 months, Maine’s utility companies are allowed to disconnect service to customers who haven’t paid their bills starting Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean people who owe money to Central Maine Power or any other utility face an imminent loss of service, though.

Utility companies are typically ready, willing and able to work out payment plans and figure out how to keep services on – and this year, unlike most, there’s a pool of cash from the federal government to lend a hand to some of those in financial trouble due to COVID-19.

“We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars to help Maine people catch up” after “a really rough year” since the pandemic slammed the nation last spring, Linda Ball, CMP’s vice president of customer service, said Thursday.

Under Maine law, utilities are almost never allowed to shut off service during the winter, between Nov. 15 and April 15. Last year, in recognition of the widespread woes created by the coronavirus, the Maine Public Utilities Commission imposed an emergency moratorium that kept the cutoff ban in place until the winter rules kicked in again.

But regulators declined to keep the moratorium in place this year, allowing utilities to deal with people who don’t pay as they usually do.

Ball said, though, that it’s still not a typical year.

Though the company sent 65,000 customers letters warning them about past due bills, Ball said it hopes most of them will work out payment plans, often with help from state and federal programs that aim to keep the power on for as many Mainers as possible.

“We know things have been tough,” Ball said, and CMP is trying hard to offer “pretty generous terms” to help customers who have fallen behind catch up over time without losing their service.

The chairman of the PUC, Philip Bartlett, said in a news release Thursday that people who have fallen behind should “reach out to the utility to work out a plan to address past-due balances.”

“We expect utilities to work with customers and be flexible,” he said. “If they are not, customers should contact the commission’s Consumer and Safety Assistance Division for help.”

Ball said there are a few more people than usual who haven’t paid their bills. But, she said, there is a lot more aid available to help them than typically exists.

An emergency rental assistance program operated by the Maine State Housing Authority doles out millions in federal aid to Mainers who have COVID-related difficulties paying their rent or for utilities. It is possible to apply online.

Ball called it “a really fantastic program” that people should check into if they’re having a hard time making ends meet.

In addition, there is a heating assistance program that may offer help, an Electricity Lifeline Program and a state Arrears Management Program that offers qualified low-income customers help in reducing their past-due balances.

Ball said the most important thing for anyone who owes money on utility bills is to take some action.

“Not paying it and avoiding it is not going to make it go away,” Ball said. “Not doing anything just makes it worse.”

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