Rules hope to keep seniors from heat shut offsPublished 9:29am Thursday, September 10, 2009
By MARCIA STEFFENS
Niles Daily Star
The tragic death of a 93-year-old man has prompted action throughout the state, in order to prevent any other seniors from freezing in their own homes this coming winter.
Municipal utilities would be prohibited from shutting off electricity to the homes of known senior citizens during the winter heating season, under proposed rules sent to Michigan Municipal Electric Association members.
The draft rules are the work of the association’s Shut-off Protection Workgroup, formed in February after the death of a 93-year-old Bay City man who had an electric limiter installed at his residence.
A limiter allows electric service to meet basic needs, but shuts off electricity when a certain demand is exceeded. The model rules prohibit the use of limiters until members can review orders to be issued by the Michigan Public Service Commission regarding their use.
Jim Lehmkuhl, of the Niles Utilities Department was a member of the workshop.
“We are being proactive,” Lehmkuhl said. “We don’t want to wait for the legislators to do it for us.” Niles, along with many other municipalities in the state, want to set guidelines “with-in and not be forced,” he added.
He will go to the Niles City Council “to protect our customers.”
“The proposed rules reflect our commitment to public service and our steadfast determination to make sure elderly, low-income and critical care customers are protected,” said Jim Weeks, executive director of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association (MMEA). “Clearly, winter shut-off protection for seniors was a priority.”
The rules also prohibit summer shut-offs for eligible seniors when the forecasted temperature exceeds 95 degrees, an issue raised by Sen. Bruce Patterson, R-Canton, who chairs the Senate Energy Policy and Public Utilities Committee.
“We want to make sure our senior citizens are safe, no matter what the time of year,” Weeks said. “Safety knows no season.”
The hardest part, according to Lehmkuhl, will be to identify the customers who are of low income, seniors or disabled. Also, there may be someone living in the home who cold be included as a critical-care customer.
There is no date base at this time with this information.
“We are going to have to advertise, with ads, inserts, radio … they have to let us know,” Lehmkuhl said. “We only have two months to gear up for winter.”
Out of the 7,500 Niles Utilities customers, Lehmkuhl thought about 6,000 were residential.
Seniors would be those 65 and older. Those with medical disabilities would need to show some documentation, he added.
Residents interested in identifying themselves can call the Niles Utilities Department at 683-4700.
“We want to do what’s necessary to protect our customers,” Lehmkuhl said.
Earlier in the year, the MMEA worked with House Energy and Technology Committee Chairman Jeff Mayes, D-Bay City, in drafting bills to address how municipal utilities would handle issues involving shut-offs. The MMEA workgroup used language contained in the bills as a guide.
The MMEA board is strongly encouraging its 40 members to have rules in place by Nov. 1, the start of the winter heating season, which runs until March 31.
Proposed protections also direct utilities to:
• Permit low-income customers falling behind on their bills during the winter months to work out a payment plan;
• Provide shut-off protection for customers with certified medical conditions;
• Prohibit use of electric-service limiters until the Michigan Public Service Commission establishes standards;
• Provide notices that contai
n important information to customers prior to shut-off;
• Detail when shut-offs may occur, allowing customers to take steps to restore power;
• Attempt to contact known senior citizens after a shut-off occurs;
• Supply customers with certain information regarding shut-off;
• Make an effort to allow senior citizens to identify themselves to the utility;
• Allow customers to name a third party to receive bills and shut-off notices for them.
“Michigan’s most vulnerable citizens need an added level of protection, and the Shut-off Protection Workgroup’s proposed rules accomplish just that,” said J. Peter Lark, workgroup chair and general manager of the Lansing Board of Water & Light.
“We worked diligently to make sure the rules were clearly stated, so customers could understand them and utilities could effectively implement them,” said Annette Allen, of the Grand Haven Board of Light & Power. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”
“Putting these rules in place is a priority for our members,” said Kirby Juntila, of the Marquette Board of Light and Power, and president of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association board. “No one’s more anxious than we are to ensure customer safety.”