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Debate Sparked Over Edison’s Cutoff Policy : Energy: A heat exhaustion death triggers criticism of tougher collection rules. Utility says it’s eager to work with customers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California Edison has pulled the plug on more than 200,000 non-paying customers so far this year--double the entire 1993 number--and this month’s heat wave has raised the stakes to potentially dangerous levels.

The death by heat exhaustion of an elderly Palm Springs woman whose electricity was disconnected for failure to pay a $40 bill has triggered criticism of the utility’s recently toughened policies, and Edison responded this week with a plea for hard-pressed customers to avail themselves of help.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 18, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 18, 1994 Home Edition Business Part D Page 3 Column 3 Financial Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Southern California Edison Co.--Edison’s cutoffs of electricity to non-paying customers so far this year--about 230,000--equals the disconnections in all of 1993. An article in Wednesday’s editions incorrectly described the year-to-year increase in cutoffs.

“If you have a problem paying your bill, contact us first. We don’t want to disconnect you,” said Robert H. Bridenbecker, Edison’s senior vice president for customer solutions.

California’s electric and gas utilities have recently stiffened collection procedures and are now strictly adhering to cutoff provisions laid out by the California Public Utilities Commission, said Patricia Esule, Los Angeles supervisor of consumer affairs for the PUC.

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“Utilities aren’t allowing customers to carry past-due balances as long as they used to,” Esule said Tuesday.

Under PUC rules--which apply to investor-owned utilities such as Edison--bills are due on receipt and considered past due 19 days after the bill was mailed. Customers then receive a delinquency notice, which allows 15 more days to pay the bill.

Next, the utility must give customers 48 hours’ notice--by phone or mail or in person--that their power is about to be cut off. Special consideration is mandated for the elderly or handicapped, but the utilities normally don’t know whether a customer is in one of those categories because there is no requirement for them to gather that information when a customer signs up for service.

In Los Angeles, the Department of Water & Power has not experienced a significant jump in cutoffs, though it, too, is clamping down on late payers. The policy is “to be really, really tough on those we think are trying to beat us,” said F. Rennie Powell, director of the city utility’s commercial division.

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Edison blames the jump in disconnections on California’s dismal economy, but consumer advocates say the utility’s stricter policies are making matters worse. In a statement to be filed Thursday with the PUC, Toward Utility Rate Normalization, a San Francisco consumer group, will accuse Edison of “callous treatment of residential customers having trouble paying their bills.”

TURN notes that unemployment, while high, has remained stable even as what it terms a “rampage of disconnections” has occurred.

Other utilities have seen similar increases in power cutoffs.

Southern California Gas Co. cutoffs jumped 20% in July alone. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has seen a 28% rise in disconnections this year over last. And all the utilities have recently stiffened their collection procedures.

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“We’ve been trying to tell customers that we really mean it” about disconnections, said Suzanne Middelburg, Edison manager of consumer affairs.

The utility has added about 30 workers to its disconnection crews since October.

“The policy really hasn’t changed as much as how we’re implementing it,” Middelburg said. “We weren’t as aggressive as other companies.”

Critics of the new, tougher policies cite the death in late June of Cynthia Blaire, 68, whose body was discovered June 30 in her Palm Springs apartment.

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The temperature in the apartment still registered 110 degrees at 7:45 p.m. that evening; according to the Riverside County coroner’s office, she died of heat exhaustion.

After failing in several attempts to reach Blaire by phone and after mailing the required notices, Edison turned off her power June 23. Personal contact is not required before a cutoff under PUC rules.

“People are shocked and appalled that something like that could happen,” said Rolfe Arnhym, chief executive and executive vice president of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce. “With all due respect to Edison . . . there are a lot of folks who are hurting (financially). We’re going to have to work with them, and if we have to rewrite some procedures, so be it.”

Since the Palm Springs death, Edison has said it will try to directly contact overdue customers when the mercury is 105 degrees or higher or 25 degrees or below.

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Nonetheless, critics fear such problems could grow as the state’s electric utilities pare back to face the new world of competition.

Getting Help

Southern California’s heat wave is boosting utility costs for many homeowners--and boosting chances that consumers will suffer a power shut-off for non-payment of their bills. Here’s what you can do if you don’t have the money to pay Southern California Edison. (Other utilities have similar programs.)

* Call. Customers who are sincerely trying to pay won’t be shut off, Edison says. But you’ll need to notify the utility and determine your payment options.

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* Seek low-income assistance. Ask about programs that can mean a discounted rate if your income is below certain thresholds (between $15,700 and $25,800, depending on the size of your household). Call: (800) 447-6620.

* Sign up for “cycling.” Edison offers a cash credit to help defray summer electric bills in exchange for allowing the utility to shut off your air conditioner during hours of peak demand--usually between noon and 6 p.m.

* Budget your payments. Edison’s “level pay” plan doesn’t reduce overall utility expenses, but it allows you to even out your bills over 11 months of the year. In the 12th month, there’s a “settlement bill.”

* Use third-party notification. If you set it up with Edison in advance, the utility will contact a third party--a family member or friend, for example--when your bill is overdue. The third party may help handle the matter with the company.

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