Posted June 15, 202012:58 pm
For the past three months, Cleveland Public Power hasn’t pulled the plug on a single customer. A moratorium on power shutoffs and the utility’s pledge to restore service to those already disconnected, offered customers a needed reprieve at a time when the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic left so many jobless and unable to pay their bills.
The city has yet to determine when the moratorium will end. When it does, we could reasonably expect to see a surge of disconnections, as thousands of Clevelanders remain out of work.
There is a bright spot, however. For the first time in – well, ever – CPP customers will be able to schedule a hearing before an impartial panel to challenge a shutoff or dispute a bill. That might seem like a basic accommodation that customers should expect from a city-owned utility. In fact, city law has required the utility to provide a board of review to hear such cases since 1982. But as I reported in a column in February, CPP had been ignoring that law and depriving its customers of due process for decades. The utility never even bothered to empanel a review board.
CPP told me in January that they would assemble a board for a customer upon request, but they said only one person has ever asked for a review, and that customer didn’t show up for her scheduled hearing.
I didn’t believe for a second that in nearly four decades, only one customer, out of 80,000 served by CPP at any given time, has needed to exercise that right. The more likely scenario, of course, is that customers were unaware that they have the right to formally challenge their bill or a utility disconnection, because CPP fails to publish that information on its website, or even on disconnection notices, where the law requires it.
Still, taking CPP at its word that a board would be assembled to hear a dispute upon request, I called the customer service line to ask about the process of requesting a review. The representative responded, “We don’t have anything like that.”
I’m pleased to report that in an email last week, a city spokeswoman assured me that a board of review will be up and running by the time the moratorium on shutoffs ends, so customers can challenge disconnections, denial-of-payment plans and other service problems. Also, from now on, utility disconnection notices will properly inform customers of their rights.
The city says the details and board appointments are being finalized.
That’s great news, because here are a couple problems I’ve heard a lot about that likely will keep the review board pretty busy:
Per city ordinance, when CPP disconnects power on elderly or disabled customers, the utility is supposed to notify them “by personal contact,” either by phone or face-to-face. According to a CPP spokeswoman in January, the utility instead uses bills, letters or shut-off tags to inform these customers of a potential disconnection.
In other words – in writing, not “by personal contact.”
Also if “extreme environmental conditions” exist, such as freezing or dangerously hot temperatures, or if a customer obtains a doctor’s certification that someone in the household suffers from an illness that would be exacerbated by losing power, city law prohibits CPP from terminating service due to an inability to pay.
But in many cases, CPP has not been meeting those requirements, according to Phil Althouse and Anne Reese, attorneys with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
Althouse and Reese say their clients, who have obtained the required medical certification, turn to them for help because CPP has told them the utility will only issue a reprieve from disconnection for up to 72 hours. In a January email, the CPP spokeswoman confirmed that customers with medical certifications are given “anywhere from three business days to two weeks before power is disconnected.”
Reese and Althouse say that time limit is arbitrary and against the law.
“A lot of times CPP demands payment of the balance in full within that time frame, which for many of these clients is impossible,” Reese told me in January. “Seventy-two hours isn’t even enough time for me to connect people with resources that can help them. … The point of the ordinance is to protect customers who have a medical need. And the medical need doesn’t go away in 72 hours.”
As the coronavirus crisis continues to take its toll on the health and financial well-being of Clevelanders, I will be relieved to know that some of the most vulnerable among us will enjoy their Constitutional right to due process in dealing with these disputes. As a municipal utility serving one of the poorest cities in America, CPP should have been leading the industry in fair and humane best practices all along, instead of cutting power to the ill or disabled and offering them no way to contest those decisions.
Here’s hoping we can expect better from now on.