CORPORATION Commission votes to consider changing disconnect policy

Friday, August 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Corporation Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve a motion to consider changing rules on the disconnection of utility services to residential customers.

Commission members heard from concerned citizens and utility representatives before voting to open a Notice of Inquiry, which is required under state law to begin the process under which the rules change will be formulated.

The meeting was the second hearing this summer since nine Oklahomans have died heat-related deaths. There were numerous calls for more compassion and personal contact on the utilities' part, while utility representatives spoke of the difficulty of separating the truly needy from deadbeats.

Clara Luper, a noted Oklahoma civil rights activist, asked commissioners to re-examine the standard utility practice of sending or posting disconnect notices, rather than making direct contact with the customers.

``Suppose that person is not physically able to go to the door?'' Luper asked. ``Suppose that person is not mentally able to go to the door?''

Luper has been critical of disconnection practices and rules since the heat-related death this summer of Bernice Watts, her longtime friend. Watts had air conditioning and money, but her power was disconnected July 2, four days before all disconnections were stopped by law due to soaring heat.

She was found dead July 21, after apparently becoming incapacitated physically or mentally.

Current commission rules require utilities to suspend disconnects at a summer heat index of 103 degrees. In the winter, disconnection can't occur if the high is, or predicted to be, 32 degrees or less or the low is 20 degrees or less.

Ernest Johnson, director of the commission's Public Utility Division, said commission staff surveyed 25 states and found that Oklahoma is one of three states with extreme-heat provisions. Many other states have other provisions affecting disconnection, such as financial help or laws requiring mandatory reconnection in extreme weather.

The commission recommended that a disconnection ban be added during certain times of year, and that utilities be required to make personal contact before disconnections. Commissioners also recommended that a universal fund of voluntary donations be established, and sliding utility-rate discounts of up to 30 percent be given to low-income households.

Under present law, utilities send three disconnection notices, including a 48-hour notice delivered personally. However, contact in person or by phone is not required before a disconnect.

Customers must contact utilities and identify themselves as senior citizens or handicapped to gain special disconnect status. Even then, the advantage can be small _ another five days before a cutoff.

``How do you separate the people who are just not going to pay you, from the ones who really need help'' asked Harold Hale, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives.

Some testimony at the hearing suggested there is confusion among utility employees about disconnect policy.

Lettie Hunter, a senior citizen who said she represents the Dykins Heights and Sunny Knolls community councils, said a utility worker sent to cut off a neighbor's electricity would not accept money the woman had just received from Hunter as payment for her overdue bill.

``They need to be more human,'' Hunter said.

Burnett said a connection agent makes the final attempt to collect _ and can accept payment at the home and cancel a disconnection.