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Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Published: 5/22/2006

A penny for her thoughts

What a public relations mess. For lack of a penny a Michigan utility company has bought itself a million dollars worth of bad publicity.

Ironically, the company that created its own embarrassing situation could have bought its way out of trouble dirt cheap: for one cent.

The official line from Consumers Energy Co. about a Flint account with an overdue balance of a penny was that the company had no choice but to turn off Jacqueline Williams' power and leave her in the dark until the bill was settled. No choice?

The rules-are-rules refusal of the CMS Energy Corp. subsidiary to forgive an outstanding bill of one cent is stunning. Was the lack of a penny worth cutting off electricity to a 41-year-old on Social Security?

Was it worth the subsequent flood of bad publicity slamming the Michigan utility?

Ms. Williams had admittedly fallen way behind in paying her Consumers bills starting last November. She racked up a whopping $1,662.08 debt. But before the lights went out in her home recently, the woman had managed to round up enough cash to settle her bill - all except for one cent.

In April she sought financial assistance from the Michigan Department of Human Services. The agency agreed to cover a significant chunk of her obligation, but she still owed a sizable portion.

She appealed for help from the Salvation Army, which kicked in $430.67, a payment Consumers generously offered to "match" with $430.66 toward her bill. Ah, is that the missing penny?

After all the finagling and footwork to clear the overdue balance on her account, Ms. Williams still came up short.

Consumers spokesman Terry DeDoes claims the company's hands were tied because the state agency requires a co-payment before funds are released. No funds, no bill paid, no power.

For her part, Ms. Williams needs to figure out a better arrangement for paying her bills. Consumer's subsidies can't continue forever. And charity cannot be expected to bail her out every time.

However, turning off anyone's power should be a last resort for any public utility, and in this instance Ms. Williams somehow scraped together a payment package.

Couldn't somebody at the home office have taken a penny out of his or her own pocket or purse and spared the company this mess?



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