In the midst of rising energy prices, defense officials have taken the first step to bring utility bills back to residents of privatized housing, but the timeline and details are unclear.
DoD officials issued a policy memo to the military branches Dec. 16 with requirements for their new utilities billing rules and policies under the “Resident Energy Conservation Program.” Like the old program, which went by the same name, the new program is designed to monetarily reward tenants who conserve energy and charge more to those who don’t.
Military families had in the past complained about the fairness of the controversial program, particularly the accuracy of the meters measuring gas and electricity usage, and the billing.
The Navy and Air Force suspended their versions of the utilities billing program for privatized housing residents in 2020, as required by the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. But the Army suspended its version in 2019, shortly after residents’ complaints about mold, water intrusion, rat and insect infestation and other problems prompted congressional hearings and military town hall meetings.
Information is scant about the services’ requirements for the new utilities billing program; DoD spokesman Peter Hughes said the attachment to the memo outlining those requirements “is sensitive and cannot be released.”
But there doesn’t appear to be a blanket requirement that all privatized housing units be included in the billing program; it will vary from installation to installation.
In some cases, a utilities billing program may not be established at an installation; or the conservation program might not include all utilities at an installation, Hughes said. Or the billing program might not include all the privatized housing units on an installation. “These decisions will be made specific to each [privatized housing] project, installation, housing neighborhood, housing unit and utility,” he said.
The 2020 law required DoD to suspend the utilities billing program on an installation until DoD could certify to the congressional defense committees that 100% of the privatized housing units were individually metered for utilities usage, and the meter accurately measured the unit’s energy usage.
If DoD wasn’t able to provide that certification within two years after the law was enacted, then the billing program at the installation would be terminated. Thus, the services’ billing programs ended Dec. 20, 2021. The policy guidance for the services’ version of the new program was signed Dec. 16 by Steven J. Morani, acting assistant secretary of defense for sustainment.
The previous utilities conservation program was rooted in defense officials’ desire to establish incentives for residents in privatized housing to decrease utility consumption and save energy — thus reducing overall costs for landlords. Before these programs were rolled out — beginning around 2010 for some installations — residents’ utilities costs were included in their rent they paid to their privatized housing landlord. Generally, their rent is equal to their Basic Allowance for Housing. The BAH, which varies by rank, dependent status and geographic location, factors in utility costs in the area.
The previous iteration of the Resident Energy Conservation Program calculated a baseline average utility usage for homes, then gave a rebate or credit to tenants using less energy than that baseline amount, while billing the residents who used excess energy. So, it was to the residents’ advantage to conserve energy — if the billing procedures were accurate.
There were some exceptions allowed to this baseline, which DoD refers to as the “utility allowance,” such as families with a special-needs member requiring equipment that uses more energy.
The Dec. 16 memo directs the military services, “effective immediately, to issue policies for establishing and managing resident utility allowances and RECPs in privatized housing,” Hughes said. Service officials are also required to work with their privatized housing companies on establishing and maintaining the conservation program.
According to Hughes, the DoD policy provides overarching guidance to the services on:
♦ Determining the utility allowance, or baseline usage for a service member living in privatized housing;
♦ Criteria for including or excluding individual units in the billing program;
♦ Reporting requirements
♦ Billing requirements; and
♦ Start-up protocols, verifications, approvals and notifications.
The new utilities billing program will require, among other things, verification of meter connections and meter accuracy as part of the formal approval process, Hughes said. Those verifications are the basic requirements outlined in the law.
Family advocates, who also have not seen details of the new requirements, have many questions about the time frames and processes in which the services will implement the program.
“How will the services certify that they can do this in a standardized way, consistently across the board?” asked Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “The program was stopped because there was no standardization. What’s different?
“Would they need a data collection period to collect those baselines? So, what’s the period of time?” she said.
“I would hope they’d need at least a year’s worth of data,” she said. “You can’t apply December standards in July to Corpus Christi, Texas.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.