Disconnect rules discussed in detailPublished 8:30am Monday, October 19, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Dowagiac City Council Oct. 12 approved winter utility disconnect rules consistent with Michigan Municipal Electrical Association (MMEA) recommendations.
CIty Manager Kevin Anderson talked about the rules in tandem with a resolution to establish general shutoff rules “because they work hand in hand. This second reading, what it does, is it takes all of the disconnect rules we have on the books that are now an ordinance and wipes those out. It simply says, ‘Council will adopt disconnect rules by resolution.’
“The ordinance says, ‘From this point on, (council) will do it by resolution instead of by ordinance. Then the companion piece to it is the resolution that lists all the general shutoff rules.”
Adopting rules by resolution will enable the council to make adjustments.
“Doing it by resolution allows it to be a more fluid document,” Anderson said.
“Now we get to the meat and potatoes of it,” Anderson said, turning to the utility disconnect procedure that “came about because the MMEA” promulgated new regulations in the wake of an elderly man freezing to death last winter in Bay City.
“This allows us to get utility regulations in place that will be consistent with the recommendation of this organization (MMEA) and consistent with what we expect to see in new state rules and regulations,” Anderson said.
“Some of these rules are already in place for private utilities through the Michigan Public Service Commission,” he said. “Some are a little unique. But the end result is that the MMEA is recommending that all public utilities adopt these rules and regulations.”
Highlighting the document, Anderson said of electric service limiters, “We don’t do that now and have not done that. This does give, with appropriate consent documents in place, landlords can receive copies of bills or shutoff notification. It does create some obligations on the utility that we haven’t had in the past. Twice per year the utility’s going to need to notify customers of contact information for the Department of Human Services: ‘If you’re having problems with your utility bill during winter season, here are the groups you can go.’ We now have an obligation to have those notifications. We also have an obligation each year to attempt to try to identify senior citizen customers. They’re the people most at risk.”
“It also requires,” Anderson continued, “that any shutoff must occur at least two hours prior to the close of business. Our practice has always been to try to do that with at least an hour left, so this will impact operations slightly. The other thing that’s part of this plan is during winter months there is a payment plan available – 7 percent of the annual someone can pay and continue to have utilities. It also says that if there is a delinquency or arrearage at that time, the person would be allowed to pay off that delinquency prior to the next winter season. You can calculate how much that would be each month and put that in.”
“What we’ve done since council’s discussion (Sept. 28) and hearing from citizens who said they liked the opportunity they have for two additional extensions during the winter. We can offer customers either/or – the 7 percent or an alternate payment plan of two additional 10-day payment extensions, like we have in place now. We give that choice to the customer that they can pick the new plan that’s part of it or stick with the old. That additional option is new to the regulations since they were first proposed two weeks ago,” Anderson noted.
Also, some language addresses shutting off households with individuals who have certified critical medical or life-support equipment.
“We already have some rules and regulations in place that can extend those times,” Anderson said, “but this does more and it also standardizes that language in Michigan. This allows for 21-day time periods that can be extended up to a maximum of 63 days. That 21 days, as I came to find out as we looked at it, was really centered around how long it takes to get somebody with those medical situations in alternate facilities.”
“Those are the highlights of the nuances or differences from our policies that have been in place,” he added. “I think, hopefully, some of the adjustments address concerns the council has been talking about.”
Howard Hall questioned the provision in the ordinance to dispute an electric bill or electric service.
“Who do you file it with and who hears it?” Hall asked.
“We’ve got to put some administrative rules together,” Anderson replied, “but ultimately I suspect it will be me or the director of public services,” Christopher Bolt.
Hall also commented, “This 7-percent policy sounds good, but your paperwork states it two different ways. One was 7 percent of your estimated winter bill, the other said 7 percent of your annual bill. (Anderson) clarified it’s 7 percent of your annual bill. If you have a $100-a-month electric bill and you decide to go with the 7-percent plan, you’re going to save $16. That’s not a whole lot of help for someone struggling to pay their electric bill. It said someone had to pick which plan they wanted to use – the two 10-day extensions or the 7 percent – and another (passage) said you couldn’t use the two simultaneously.”
Third Ward Councilman Leon Laylin, referring to Hall’s input, asked, “If we review this twice a year and he’s in this second period, would he be able to requalify himself?”
“If you look at it this way,” Anderson said, “we’re saying you can’t be in both programs. If you opted into the 7 percent, then wanted to take an extension on top of that, you couldn’t do that. The other thing I was thinking about is that if someone used one of the extensions, then wanted to go to the payment plan, I think they would be eligible because they’re not in the middle of participating in one of those plans. You just can’t be in both plans at the same time. So, if you’ve used one extension and it’s a month later,” a customer could turn to the 7 percent plan.
“I think that’s how we have to administer it. We will create administrative rules to match what I just talked about,” such as dispute resolution.
First Ward Councilwoman Lori Hunt brought up an inspection provision, which she said some customers will interpret as “a way to get into our house.”
Laylin responded, “Actually, you’re inspecting the meter and the maintenance of the equipment.”
“This doesn’t give any additional powers than what are already there,” Anderson agreed.
“There is no reason for us to inspect – and we don’t have the time or desire to go into everybody’s home or business, just for the sake of inspection (unless) a safety concern arises.
“We’re concerned that if we’re providing electricity, there could be injury, and we want and need the right to inspect. If notified it could be unsafe, we have an obligation to look at it. What this says is we have the right to disconnect service if we’re refused entry.”