By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
State utility regulators voted last week to immediately block electric companies under their purview from shutting off power to residential customers who do not pay their bills from June 1 through Oct. 15.
The 4-0 vote by the Arizona Corporation Commission requires utilities to give those who fall behind up to four months after Oct. 15 to repay the outstanding balance. And it bars the utilities from charging interest or late fees.
The emergency rules also say that any customer whose power has been shut off since June 1 must be immediately reconnected, also without any additional fees.
The whole question of waiving additional charges bothered Commissioner Justin Olson.
“We may be actually creating an enticement to not pay one’s bill,’’ he said. “If one has other bills that will accrue interest and late fees, as most bills do, then there’s an enticement to delay paying this bill.’’
Olson that creates a risk that some people will get in so deep that they will end up having problems bringing their account into balance by the following Feb. 15, resulting in them losing power at that time.
But Sandra Kennedy defended adding the no-fees language to the emergency order.
“I think what we have seen recently is a utility that has learned to beat the system,’’ she said.
It was that utility’s action last summer disconnecting the power of 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman after she had paid just $125 of her $176 bill that led to Thursday’s emergency rules. Pullman had been found dead in her Sun City West home, with the death certificate saying she had preexisting conditions that were exacerbated by the temperature in her house.
Kennedy argued that eliminating extra fees actually gives customers a chance to catch up on what they owe.
But Kennedy, the lone Democrat on the commission, said there’s a larger issue at work in why customers — 110,000 last year in APS territory alone — are being cut off in the first place.
“It’s a hardship because the rates are too high,’’ Kennedy continued. “What do we do about that? We’ve been very silent on that.’’
“If we sit idle, and we sit silent, then we are just going along to get along,’’ she said.
The emergency rules also contain an additional provision designed to help customers avoid having their power cut off, not just during the summer but on a year-round basis.
It says if a utility has a deposit on hand, the company must first look to the deposit to make up anything owed. Then customers will get four months to bring the deposit back to where it was before.
The commission’s temporary rule came several days after Gov. Doug Ducey said it has been getting into areas beyond its constitutional authority to set utility rates. “There’s been a bit of mission creep,’’ the governor said.
The governor also said he’s not sure that the commission is the agency, which is constitutionally created, may be overstepping its bounds in telling utilities how much of their power has to come from renewable energy.
Those contentions drew a surprised reaction from Bob Burns who chairs the five-member panel.
“Maybe he ought to read the constitution,’’ Burns told Capitol Media Services, specifically rejecting Ducey’s contention that the question of when a utility can shut off power is an issue to be decided by the Legislature and the governor.
“We have rule-setting authority to establish rules to have utilities follow,’’ said Burns. “It’s part of our charge.’’