SIERRA VISTA — The Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative was among a group of Arizona power companies that won a victory of sorts when the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) on Wednesday afternoon exempted them from part of an emergency order prohibiting power companies in the state from disconnecting residential customers’ service between June 1 and Oct. 15.
The ACC’s ruling specifically affects SSVEC’s residential customers who use the prepaid option. It comes in response to SSVEC’s request for a waiver from the emergency order, which went into effect this year. SSVEC argued that the commission had already created the exemption when they first approved prepaid metering three years ago, because of several factors.
Among those are the facts that companies offering the prepaid option do not require a security deposit or a letter of credit from a previous utility, and prepaid customers agree to manage their service on a frequently used device, such as a smartphone, explained Jack Blair, SSVEC’s chief member services officer.
The emergency order was unanimously approved by the ACC in June, less than a week after it was learned that a 72-year-old Sun City West woman died in September after having her power disconnected on a 107-degree day.
SSVEC’s residential customers who are billed for their service — accounts secured by deposits — are not affected by the ruling and will continue to be protected from service being disconnected because of nonpayment until Oct. 15.
The exemptions granted this week — they were actually voted on a week ago, but officially signed Wednesday — to SSVEC and the half-dozen or so other Arizona power companies who offer prepaid service do not completely disregard the danger posed by harsh weather. Power companies “shall not disconnect (prepaid) customers on any day where the high temperature is expected to hit or exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit,” SSVEC’s exemption order reads.
Blair said SSVEC — which had asked that 100 degrees be the benchmark temperature to preclude disconnection — is happy to abide by the ACC’s decision to lower the threshold to 95 degrees. Additionally, Blair noted, the electric cooperative will only disconnect service on days when the company’s offices are open and also open the following day, which allows customers to quickly have their service restored.
SSVEC has been messaging its prepay customers since the ACC initially voted on the exemptions last week, letting them know of the coming change, Blair said. He added that the company began disconnecting service for residential prepay accounts that were in arrears on Thursday.
“But we try to work with people all the time on (setting up payment plans or other payment options),” Blair said, who noted that prepay customers comprise less than half of their customer base. “Disconnecting someone is not something we like to do or want to do. So, we’re open to working with people all the time.”
Blair said that some service organizations, such as the Salvation Army and others who have programs to help people pay utility bills, had some reservations about the emergency order when it was adopted in June. While understanding the safety aspect of preventing companies from disconnecting service during the hot summer months of Arizona, there was fear that the order could enable a mindset that people don’t need to pay their bills. Then, come Oct. 15 when the order allows companies to resume disconnections, some customers could face colossal bills that they’re unable to pay, and are too big for service organizations to cover as well.
“A lot of these service groups who help people with their utility bills went in and said, ‘This is not a good thing, because you’re going to end up having people owe a lot more, and we can help people with $25 or $50 or $100, but we’re not going to be able to help thousands of people with hundreds of dollars,’” Blair said.
Blair encouraged power customers who are still protected from disconnection until Oct. 15 to do their best to stay current with their bill.
“The disconnect rules aren’t forever,” he noted. “It’s important that people don’t fall too far behind, because this isn’t a free ride and eventually these bills are all going to be due.”
Meanwhile, Wednesday’s waiver from the ACC allowing power companies to disconnect prepaid service customers’ electricity didn’t move the needle much for customers going in and out of SSVEC’s Sierra Vista offices at 311 E. Wilcox Drive. Many said the move won’t affect them at all.
“Where I’m from, if you don’t pay your bill, you get your power cut off,” said Erik Pierce. “Simple as that. Just pay your bills.”
Michelle Kniffen, though, said she thinks there should be yet another exception to the power companies’ new exception.
“My opinion about it is if it’s elderly people or people with children, they shouldn’t be allowed to cut the power off,” Kniffen said. “If you’re elderly or have young kids, you’re more at risk, so they shouldn’t be allowed to cut those people’s power off.”