By Mandy Miles & Sara Matthis
After Hurricane Irma, it was almost impossible to calculate how many residents left the Keys for good … until someone researched the number of power disconnections since the storm. (In case you’re wondering, it was 3,090.) The same methods can be used to understand how the pandemic is affecting businesses.
A social media post that circulated last week claimed 164 Key West businesses had closed permanently, according to electric service disconnection figures from Keys Energy Services, the utility that provides power to 29,000 customers from Key West to the Seven Mile Bridge.
Keys Weekly contacted Keys Energy spokesman Julio Torrado for confirmation, and learned that some of the business disconnection numbers had been misinterpreted.
Torrado clarified the figures for Keys Weekly this week, and said, “From March through June, Keys Energy shows 59 commercial accounts closed their accounts — four in March; 14 in April; 25 in May; 16 in June,” he said. “During that same time period we also show that 59 other commercial accounts requested a change of name for their account, which means it could have reverted back to the landlord’s name or a new business took over.” In all, the data shows that 118 businesses have been affected in Key West and the Lower Keys.
The Florida Keys Electric Co-op, a not-for-profit utility that is member-owned, serves 33,000 businesses and residences from the Seven Mile Bridge to Key Largo. It reports that it has seen a net decrease in commercial accounts, but by a smaller margin — only 17. Nikki Dunn Cullen, the FKEC spokesperson, said 5 of those were in the Marathon district and 12 in Tavernier between March 1, 2020 and June 30, 2020.
Torrado added that Keys Energy Services noticed a “slight dip” in the total amount of power consumed in March, April and May, “due to larger commercial properties, like hotels, being closed or offline.” The same held true for the Middle and Upper Keys, served by FKEC, except April, when households consumed more electricity than in 2019.
The struggle continues
While 118 or so businesses may have closed, others continue to struggle to pay their bills.
Keys Energy Services has not been shutting off power to customers who are unable to pay since March. According to figures from Keys Energy Services, accounts in arrears numbered 199 in March, 619 in April and 648 in May. “These are customers that would have been disconnected in March, April and May 2020 if KEYS had not suspended disconnects,” Torrado said. “These are the customers we are working with to get them on payment plans to true up accounts.”
FKEC estimates that approximately 35% more of the business and residential accounts are in arrears compared to normal years.
Both utilities have discounted utility bills — Keys Energy by 5% and 10% from May to August and FKEC with a capital credit retirement that benefited 25,000 members to the tune of $2.5 million.
Call for help
Torrado urged any Keys Energy customer who is struggling to pay bills to contact the utility immediately so their representatives can begin finding ways to help and establish a payment plan. As of last week, 28 customers had taken advantage of the utility’s deferred payment plan, while 120 customers have received assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
FKEC also has a plan. “We are working with individual members unable to partially or completely pay their electric bill, to customize a payment plan to manage their balance and maintain electrical service,” said Dunn Cullen. More information is available at fkec.com.
Neither entity expects power costs and electric bills to increase, or at least not by much.
“We do not anticipate a base rate increase to bills over the next year as a result. KEYS is monitoring reduction in sales and cash flow associated with customers falling behind or not paying bills,” Torrado said. “All customer assistance measures have been worked into the budget and offset by projects that have been postponed or canceled.”
Cullen Dunn said, “It is too early to say if there will be an impact on bills. However, the more power usage goes down, the higher the cost per kWh.”