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Corporation Commissioners discussed a prohibition on summer utility shutoffs on Thursday, June 20, 2019.EXPAND
Corporation Commissioners discussed a prohibition on summer utility shutoffs on Thursday, June 20, 2019.
Elizabeth Whitman

After Customer Death, CorpComm Prohibits Summer Shutoffs in Arizona

Arizona Corporation Commissioners on Thursday voted unanimously to prohibit power companies from disconnecting electricity to residential customers during the scorching weeks of June 1 through October 15.

The new rule, slated to take effect Friday, is a temporary one, prompted by news of a death due to utility shutoff. The changes came about as part of an emergency rule-making process, and will be effective for 180 days. The temporary rule addresses just one aspect of a much broader set of issues that the CorpComm faces, as a taut exchange between two commissioners showed on Thursday.

Before the 180-day period is up, the CorpComm is supposed to take up a formal rule-making process. Commissioners referenced the upcoming work multiple times during their open meeting, frequently punting on thornier questions and saving public comments for a later date.

Meanwhile, CorpComm Utilities Director Eli Abinah pressed the commissioners for extra time for staff to work on formal rule-making. "There's a lot going on," he said, adding, “We’ll do our best to bring this back before you by June of next year.”

Chairman Bob Burns and commissioners Boyd Dunn, Sandra Kennedy, and Justin Olson were present for the meeting and vote. The fifth and newest commissioner, Lea Marquez Peterson, who was appointed by Doug Ducey at the end of May, was away on vacation.

Instead, Marquez Peterson sent a letter apologizing for her excused absence, which she read in a video that was played during the meeting.

Burns requested the emergency rule-making last week, after news broke that Stephanie Pullman, a 72-year-old customer of Arizona Public Service, died in part from environmental heat exposure after the utility cut power to her home in Sun City West on a 107-degree day.

The new rule, as originally proposed by staff, would have barred terminations from June 1 through September 30. After some negotiation between the commissioners and Abinah, an amendment from Kennedy proposing to expand that period from May 1 through October 15 resulted in a compromise: June 1 through October 15.

Other amendments proposed by Kennedy, Dunn, and Burns sought to lighten the financial impact on customers who are still responsible for eventually paying for whatever electricity they use if termination is suspended during the summer months.

Kennedy proposed that utilities "must" use a customer's deposit to pay a delinquent balance before disconnecting their service. After some back and forth, "must" was lightened to "shall." Dunn asked that any residential customers who were already disconnected in June immediately be reconnected and not charged a reconnect fee.

Midway through the meeting, polite wrangling between Kennedy and Olson hinted at the deeper issues that the CorpComm is confronted with, and has yet to resolve, in the wake of Pullman's death: utility rates, approved by the CorpComm, that are proving unaffordable for tens of thousands of customers, and accusations that the CorpComm is more interested in protecting powerful utilities, and specifically APS, than real people.

When Kennedy suggested that utilities not be allowed to impose late fees or interest on past due amounts between June 1 and October 15, Olson protested.

"There's an enticement to delay paying this bill," he said, saying that he worried about creating an incentive for people not to pay their bills, leaving them with a significant, perhaps impossibly high, amount to pay after the termination prohibition period is over.

Kennedy pushed back, without naming APS. "I think what we have seen recently is a utility that has learned to beat the system," she said. "This is not harmful to the ratepayer; I think it is an incentive to the ratepayer. I can still be delinquent, pay, and catch up, without having to deal with those extra fees and try to figure out where those dollars are going to come from."

She continued, "It's a hardship because the rates are too high ... We've been very silent on that."

Olson changed tacks, saying he understood the intent of Kennedy's bill, but that his concern was over the unintended consequences of allowing people to run up large bills over the summer that, come fall, they would have to pay.

Kennedy stood her ground. "In reality, there are real people out there who really have a tough time paying their bills," and her amendment would "actually give them some relief," she said.

"If you feel that the company should continue to charge them late fees and charge them interest on the late fees, I mean, that’s your prerogative," she told Olson. "But I think this sends a message that we’re trying to give the ratepayers some relief.”

At that point, Olson deferred to staff. In the end, another compromise, some tweaked phrasing, and a promise to revisit the issue during formal rule-making resulted in no late fees on charges incurred between June 1 and October 15.

"It’s my hope that we don't see any unintended consequences” as a result of the measure adopted today, Olson said later.

Requests from Commissioners, separate from the proposed rule-making, have sought more information from APS that Abinah expected to arrive in the coming days, such as ZIP codes showing where shutoffs have occurred.

After the proposed rules were published on Wednesday morning, some utilities asked the CorpComm not to adopt them. Advocacy groups also weighed on unintended consequences, similar to the concerns that Olson raised, and a handful of "real people," as Kennedy would say, wrote in.

The Grand Canyon State Electric Cooperative Association, a collection of customer-owned utilities, protested the breadth of the proposed rules.

In a filing, it argued that its various cooperatives "operate under different conditions due to their smaller size [and] more limited resources." The service territories varied greatly for each of those cooperatives, it added, and so the proposed rules would bar terminations in areas "where summer temperatures do not pose a threat to customer safety."

It asked the CorpComm to "consider alternative, non-rule-making approaches to addressing the customer safety issue." Perhaps the Commission could identify "specific weather conditions (as opposed to months of the year)" that were dangerous to customers, the association wrote, and instead use those parameters to prohibit shutoffs.

One of the association's newest members, Navopache Electric Cooperative, filed its own objections, requesting to be "expressly exempt from application of the emergency rule." Its service territory is in northern Arizona, it protested, where temperatures rarely hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It warned that the moratorium would create an incentive for people who owned second homes in its service territory "to not pay monthly bills during the only period of the year in which they occupy their second homes."

In a joint letter, advocacy and anti-poverty groups Wildfire, Arizona PIRG Education Fund, St. Vincent de Paul, and the Residential Utility Consumer Office called for a stakeholder group to "develop and implement a comprehensive approach and response to utility disconnection." They were concerned that customers could face "a financial burden that would become unmanageable by the time the moratorium ends," they wrote.

One woman who weighed in asked that the CorpComm not limit the disconnection moratorium to electric utilities.

"My mother" — in her 80s — "had her gas unexpectedly disconnected in February a couple of years ago. She was without heat for about thirty day[s] before the gas company re-connected the service," the woman, Susan Twitchell, wrote. "This should not be."

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