THE Victorian energy water ombudsman is bracing for a spike in people seeking help as the state limps out of the immediate COVID-19 crisis.
Cynthia Gerbert is warning that an "unusual and surprising" drop in the number of complaints about retailers, bills and disconnections is masking the pain Victorians are feeling
Her office saw a 28 per cent drop in complaints from consumers in the 2019/20 financial year, figures released today reveal.
"We think it's a question of when cases will rise, not if," she said.
"The extensive financial support provided to people - by governments, industry, and community organisations - has done the job it was intended to do.
"As this support is wound back, we expect people will find it hard to meet their energy and water costs."
Ms Gerbert was especially worried about the Central Goldfields Shire, which encompasses Maryborough and surrounds.
The area had already been highlighted in a separate report about the likely impact of removing coronavirus income support, which was released last week by Deloitte Access Economics.
The municipality could lose close to 400 jobs in a year if support was reduced and recipients struggled to afford goods and services, it warned.
The ombudsman found the shire already had 6.2 complaints per 1000 people, the highest of all Victorian local government areas.
"That number worries us. It is a sign that people in that area are experiencing challenges keeping on top of their bills ... for an essential service," Ms Gebert said.
The shire was also among the top three for disconnections and service restrictions, collection cases and billing error cases.
Elsewhere, greater Bendigo's overall cases dropped by 18 per cent from 498 cases to 407 over the financial year, with major drops in the number of people disputing high bills and disconnections
Loddon Shire's overall cases dropped by 14 per cent to 36 cases, Campaspe's went down 12 per cent to 156 and Mount Alexander's eased by 22 per cent to 66 cases.
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Ms Gerbert was bracing for complaints to start rising just after Christmas when federal government income support tapers off.
She said it was unclear just how hard people would find it to pay energy and water bills in coming months.
"We are waiting to see what businesses do," Ms Gerbert said.
"If they keep offering solid support for customers - and customers reach out for help - that would be a really good outcome. But it really does turn on how businesses continue to help customers out.
"Customers are entitled to help if they are experiencing payment difficulties."
Ms Gerbert urged people concerned about their ability to pay in coming months to reach out to businesses or the ombudsman early and avoid finding themselves in dire situations.
Businesses and the ombudsman's office could help people start sustainable payment plans as well as offer other support.
For more information about available help visit the ombudsman's website at www.ewov.com.au or call 1800 500 509.