After a nearly two-week "investigation," the Arizona Corporation Commission said Tuesday it "cannot determine" whether or not Arizona Public Service broke rules when it cut power to an elderly woman's home on a 107-degree day last September, resulting in her death.
Still, in the 43-page report released Tuesday evening, the CorpComm did find that the state's largest and most powerful utility couldn't prove that it had taken certain steps — some required by regulations, others not — in notifying her and ultimately disconnecting her power.
Despite the lack of evidence, the regulatory agency accepted claims from Arizona's biggest utility that it broke no rules when it cut power to 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman, who died in her home in Sun City West shortly after APS disconnected service on September 7 over $51. Her death was not made public until June 13.
APS never made a courtesy phone call prior to shutting off her power, the CorpComm found. The utility also couldn't prove that it had sent an authorized representative, per regulations, to tell Pullman in person about the impending shutoff. It had zero documentation to back up its claim that the woman had been informed, per regulations, of government and social-service agencies that could help with her bills.
The CorpComm also claimed that Pullman's daughter, Jeanine Smith, who called CorpComm in the weeks following her mother's death, never told the agency that she believed the death was linked to the shutoff, despite records suggesting otherwise. The statement appeared to aim at absolving the regulatory agency of its failure to respond last fall.
The probe, requested on June 13 by Corporation Commissioner Justin Olson, was supposed to examine APS's compliance with a few key sections of Arizona Administrative Code that spell out when and how a utility can — or can't — terminate a customer's power over an unpaid bill.
APS said that it complied with those rules, or that, at least, it tried to.
It said it put door hangers on Pullman's door, as final notice of the impending shutoff. It couldn't provide copies of those exact hangers, though — just the route that a third-party contractor took in hanging the final one in September, and a template of an APS door hanger, which the CorpComm said provided less useful information than door hangers it had seen from other utilities.
The agency also said that providing the route was not enough to demonstrate that a door hanger had actually been left. Jeanine Smith, one of Pullman's two daughters, previously told Phoenix New Times that although she scoured her mother's house, she never found a door hanger — just a single shutoff notice, mailed in early September.
APS claims that it tries very hard to warn and work with customers before cutting off their power. According to spokesperson Jill Hanks, "Our standard outreach to customers who are at risk of disconnect is the required notice in the form of either a bill message or letter followed by a phone call to the number on record with the account and then a door hanger at the address of service."
APS never made that phone call to Pullman, it told CorpComm staff during the investigation.
It also was unable to provide any evidence that, per CorpComm rules, Pullman had "been informed of the availability of funds from various governments and social assistance agencies of which the utility is aware." Instead, it merely stated that it had complied with the rule.
"Mrs. Pullman was informed of the availability of the funds described," Beth McFall, an APS consumer advocate, wrote in an email to CorpComm staff as part of the investigation. But McFall also acknowledged that APS had never sent a letter with that information, and she didn't offer any detail about how Pullman "was informed" — who informed her, when, and how.
And CorpComm, apparently, didn't probe further.
CorpComm regulations also require "a personal visit to the premises by an authorized representative of the utility" prior to shutoff. APS never sent anybody to Pullman's house, and the CorpComm couldn't determine whether or not sticking a door hanger upon a door knob constituted a "personal visit" or not.
It added that APS's approved Service Schedule, which gives APS permission to disconnect service "without making a personal visit" to a person's home, "deviates" from CorpComm rules. (The CorpComm itself approved that schedule in 2011, it admitted.)
McFall also said that APS did not violate rules prohibiting power terminations during "weather especially dangerous to health." Citing Arizona state code, she pointed out that dangerous weather is defined as when the temperature gets lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit or when the CorpComm otherwise says so.
She said that APS relies on heat advisories from unnamed "third-party weather service experts" to determine when to suspend terminations.
"September 7, 2018 was not a heat advisory day as determined by these third-party weather experts," McFall wrote in an email that did not explain at what temperatures those third parties will, in fact, issue a heat advisory.
In addition, "Ms. Smith never communicated to Consumer Service that she believed that Ms. Pullman's death was in any way related to APS's disconnection of service," the report said.
Notes from those phone calls show that Smith requested "the rules related to disconnection of service and the notice requirements," and also informed a customer service representative that "her mother was found deceased in the home" and that "service had been disconnected."
Ultimately, despite the lack of evidence provided by APS, CorpComm staff concluded that it was "not disputing APS's assertions that it took certain actions to comply with these rules and regulations," but that it "simply cannot substantiate with documentation APS's actions in all cases."
Last Thursday, the CorpComm passed emergency rules prohibiting all shutoffs for unpaid bills between June 1 and October 15. It is supposed to revisit the issue and conduct permanent rulemaking within three months.
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