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Published: Wednesday, 12/19/2007

PUCO approves three-month moratorium on utility shutoffs for low-income customers

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
After recounting how he yelled for his family to come to the balcony, Anthony Diaz collapsed after the Lyman Avenue house fire in which his son, his fiancee, and her two daughters died.
After recounting how he yelled for his family to come to the balcony, Anthony Diaz collapsed after the Lyman Avenue house fire in which his son, his fiancee, and her two daughters died.
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COLUMBUS Lower-income residential consumers on some form of payment plan with their natural gas or electric utility won t have to fear having their source of heat shut off for the next three months under an order unanimously approved by state regulators Wednesday.

The 90-day moratorium issued by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio was inspired by the Nov. 28 deaths of four members of a West Toledo family in a candle-ignited fire that started hours after Toledo Edison shut off their power.

But it is questionable whether its terms would have saved Michele Crawford and her three children if it had been in place last month. The family had moved into a two-story house at 4046 Lyman Ave. a month earlier, but had not opened an account for service and were, therefore, not enrolled in a payment plan.

"This moratorium is intended to protect those customers [who] are most vulnerable and unable to pay their bills," said PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber. "However, we strongly encourage customers to continue to pay their home heating bills each month or seek available assistance programs as needed this winter."

The commission cited the current economy and dwindling government energy assistance funds as reasons for their approval.

The power in the Crawfords home had still been on under the name of a prior tenant when it was disconnected. Ms. Crawford had made inquiries weeks earlier with the utility about having service transferred to her name or that of her fianc , Anthony Diaz, but she apparently never followed through.

Ms. Crawford, 29; her two daughters, Yaniela, 11, and Victoria, 7, and her son, Ivan, 4, had fallen asleep with a candle burning as they attempted to keep warm.

Mr. Diaz escaped the blaze. Ms. Crawford was physically disabled, and her son, Ivan, was battling cancer.

This moratorium is a month longer than the 60-day moratorium last enacted in January 2001 at the request of then Gov. Bob Taft.

The new order would protect only those earning less than 175 percent of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that translates to up to $36,137 a year and only $9,034 during these three months specifically.

To benefit, consumers must be on some form of payment plan with the utility. The commission stressed that the moratorium is not forgiveness of bills.

Citing the fire, Gov. Ted Strickland requested the moratorium yesterday in a letter to Mr. Schriber, and the matter was rushed onto today s meeting agenda.

Assistance options include the Percentage of Income Payment Plan, the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), and the PUCO winter reconnect order. For more information, call 1-800-282-0880, or 1-800-686-1557 for the hearing impaired.

Information is also available on the HEAP website at http://energyhelp.ohio.gov.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

(From earlier editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com)

COLUMBUS - A state regulatory panel is poised to approve a temporary moratorium today against utilities cutting off power to customers during the depths of winter cold, a direct reaction to a West Toledo fire that killed four people.

Gov. Ted Strickland requested the moratorium in a letter yesterday to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Commission spokesman Shana Eiselstein confirmed that the matter has been rushed onto the agenda for today's meeting.

This would be the first moratorium issued by the commission since Jan. 25, 2001. That was a reaction to skyrocketing home-heating prices and near-record cold temperatures.

On the night of Nov. 28, Michele Crawford, 29; her two daughters, Yaniela, 11, and Victoria, 7, and her son, Ivan, 4, were killed in a blaze in a two-story house they had rented a month earlier at 4046 Lyman Ave. in West Toledo.

The family had fallen asleep with a candle burning as they attempted to keep warm. Toledo Edison shut power off to the home hours before the fire started because the family had failed to open an account.

"The Toledo fire triggered my thoughts about this," Mr. Strickland told The Blade yesterday. "I don't think any family should be forced in cold winter days to be without access to electricity in their homes.

"People should be protected from potential harm or death from being deprived of heat, especially children, older people, or people who are sick or otherwise disabled.

"They deserve protection through a moratorium on disconnections," he said.

The 2001 order was also issued at the request of a governor. Gov. Bob Taft had requested it in his State-of-the-State Address, and the PUCO swiftly enacted it the following day.

Details on exactly what the new order would say were unavailable yesterday, and it is unclear how it would protect people like the Crawfords.

The 2001 moratorium lasted 60 days for residential customers as long as they had enrolled in some form of payment plan with the natural gas or electric utility in question. The Crawfords, however, had not opened an account for service, let alone entered a payment plan.

"We don't want to say anything against the family that suffered this tragedy, but we do regard disconnection as a last resort," said Ralph DiNicola, spokesman for FirstEnergy, Toledo Edison's Akron-based parent firm.

"If the governor and PUCO approve a moratorium, we will comply with the moratorium," he said.

"But we want to get the word out that when people get a disconnect notice, they need to talk to our people. There are government assistance and many other programs, but it starts with a dialogue."

The governor's request was praised by Ohio Consumers' Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander.

"The request would prioritize consumers' need for heat at a time when they are strapped with so many rising costs," she said.

"With more than 300,000 disconnections occurring since the beginning of 2007, more customers losing service this winter is a major concern."

Mr. Strickland said the PUCO should continue discussions about how to deal with this issue every winter, but he doesn't believe the issue should be part of current debate in the General Assembly about the state's future energy course.

"What I would like to do is make sure we're protecting people who need protected, but without encouraging any attempt to game the system or to get by without meeting financial obligations," he said.

He said he had discussed the issue personally with PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber, who suggested that he formally put his request in writing.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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