Executives for Arizona Public Service offered their perspectives on company policies regarding disconnection for nonpayment at a special open meeting of the Arizona Corporation Commission on Sept. 4. APS disconnection policies are being eyed as playing a role in the September 2018 death of an APS customer, who died from a combination of environmental heat exposure and heart disease after her power was shut off during a period of triple-digit temperatures [E-00000A-19-0128].
Lawyers for the customer's family informed the ACC on Aug. 27 that an agreement had been reached between the family and APS regarding the death. The lawyers expressed the family's request for privacy and its hope that the statement would conclude the matter and prevent further inquiries regarding the death. Terms of the settlement agreement are confidential.
Commissioners in opening statements offered condolences to the family and to the families of other APS customers who have alleged harm or death as a result of disconnections. Chairman Bob Burns and Commissioner Sandra Kennedy spoke of past grievances with the company related to its alleged efforts to influence or "capture" the commission. Other commissioners said changing current policy is important to prevent future tragedies.
"Residents have the right to clearly understand the policies of their utilities and to feel safe" when using regulated utility services, Commissioner Lea Márquez Peterson said. Ensuring the health and safety of the public is regulators' primary responsibility, she added.
Commissioner Justin Olson reminded those present that the goal of the meeting was to gather information to establish the correct disconnection rules. The commission in June established emergency rules around disconnections and enacted a summertime moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment after learning of the 2018 death (see CEM No. 1547).
APS CEO Don Brandt, who will retire in November; APS President and incoming CEO Jeff Guldner; and APS Executive Vice President of Operations Daniel Froetscher, who attended as a "subject matter expert" for the company, according to Brandt, came to the meeting in the company of attorneys. Those attorneys in large part prevented the executives from answering questions regarding the commission's inquiry into APS and affiliates' campaign expenditures and political participation from 2012 to 2016, an agenda item added the afternoon of Aug. 30.
"If a customer calls APS, explains their situation and expresses a good-faith interest in working on an individual payment plan and/or is willing to work with us and an outside social service organization, we will work with that customer and not discontinue service," Brandt said in his opening statement. Brandt said it falls to APS customer service representatives to implement rules and make judgment calls when customers make contact.
Much of the questioning centered on APS policies that put the burden on customers to inform the utility of hardship or life-changing circumstances. Commissioners also told the executives they had misunderstood that a door hanger left by a contractor counted as a "personal visit" under company policy, a rule that changed with ACC approval in 2005 [Decision No. 6744]. Commissioner Boyd Dunn suggested to the executives that the door hangers might not be seen, especially if a customer uses their garage rather than their front door to enter and exit their home.
Froetscher told the commission that he had in the early 1980s performed the job of notifying customers they were on the APS disconnection list. During the two years he performed that job, he said, he had dogs unleashed on him, was verbally threatened and once had a weapon pulled on him. "So I have experienced firsthand the kind of confrontational nature that these kinds of incidents can instigate," he said, calling on the company's commitment to the safety of its personnel.
Commissioners continued to suggest that new rules should attempt to confirm that customers have received information regarding options for bill assistance, payment plans and social service resources, whether through personal visits, live phone calls or other mechanisms. Current rules require that the information simply be provided.
Another issue concerning commissioners in the case of the 2018 death is that the customer had made a partial payment that brought her bill to within $2 of the threshold to avoid a shutoff. Brandt, in response to Peterson, explained that the disconnection process is automated, and the overwhelming majority of meters can be disconnected or reconnected via radio signal.
"If a real person rather than an automated process saw that the power was going to be disconnected for being a dollar over the limit, do you think extra effort would have been made to inform the customer?" Peterson asked.
"I think it's a fair question. I don't know what the answer is," Froetscher responded after a long pause.
Froetscher and Brandt both said customer service representatives are trained to listen for and pick up on key words and phrases from customers that might suggest certain circumstances, and to offer crisis bill assistance or third-party social services assistance as appropriate. APS, via bill inserts, an automated call, and the door hanger, requests that customers contact the company, but customers are responsible for initiating that contact with customer service and supplying information about their circumstances. In many cases, Brandt volunteered, customers get behind on their bills due to a change in life circumstances and have little to no experience navigating social services and crisis bill programs.
Froetscher said APS had followed all the rules and procedures in place at the time the deceased customer's power was disconnected, and that those procedures meet all commission codes and expectations as well as internal company processes. "Clearly the process needs to be looked at," he said. "Clearly there's opportunity to improve. Some would suggest that the number of touchpoints we have are not sufficient or are ineffective."