Bill restricting utility shutoffs likely to save lives

Last January, 93-year-old World War II veteran Marvin Schur froze to death in his Bay City home after a local utility company restricted his use of electricity because he had overdue bills.

Two years ago this month, 90-year-old Phyllis Willett of Vicksburg died of hypothermia. It was 20 degrees in her house. She had failed to pay past-due utility bills; the power had been shut off four days before she was found.

A law enacted in Michigan this week may help prevent such tragedies.

The legislation prohibits municipal utility companies from shutting off services to elderly and disabled customers during the coldest months of the year. It also requires utilities to give customers 15 days’ notice, either in person or by certified mail, prior to shutting off their power.

We applaud the legislation.

Make no mistake; this law is not about giving people something for nothing. Ultimately, customers are expected to pay their bills. But, during the coldest months of the year in Michigan, a power shutoff is not simply a matter of bill payment. It can be a matter of life and death — as it was for Marvin Schur and Phyllis Willett.

In Schur’s case, he could afford to pay the $1,000 in past-due bills but had no immediate family in the area to help him deal with his shut-off notices. Neighbors found him dead on his bedroom floor in a winter jacket over four layers of clothing. The windows were frosted over and icicles hung from a faucet.

Four days earlier, a worker with the city-owned utility had installed a “limiter” on Schur’s electric meter after four months of unpaid bills. The device restricts power and blows like a fuse if usage rises past a set level. Electricity is not restored until the device is flipped back on by the homeowner, who must walk outside to the meter.

Bay City Electric Light & Power didn’t contact Schur face-to-face to notify him of the device and explain how it works, instead following its usual policy of leaving a note on the door. It’s unlikely Schur saw the notice.

The five bills signed into law Monday protect eligible low-income customers and seniors from municipal utility shutoffs, govern shut-off notices and procedures and permit the state attorney general or a customer to bring a civil action against a municipal utility in shut-off cases involving serious injury or death.

The bills also require municipal utilities to make efforts to identify customers who are 65 or older and require the state to give utilities information about people who have applied for or are receiving public assistance so they can be helped to reduce energy costs and prevent shutoffs.

Big, state-regulated utilities such as DTE Energy and Consumers Energy Co., along with cooperatives, are not allowed to shut off power to senior citizens in the winter and must offer payment plans to the poor. State regulators also discourage the use of limiters. But Michigan’s 41 smaller municipal utilities are not overseen by the state, so this legislation now makes customer shut-off protections uniform statewide.

It certainly makes good business sense for utility companies to have best practices in place for all customers. For example, are infirm or disabled customers asked to designate a third party to receive bill notifications, including shutoff notices, so trusted friends or relatives can help handle that paperwork on their behalf if necessary?

All companies that provide essential services to people should have such practices in place. Failing that, at least we have this law now to help protect our elderly and most vulnerable.