Stephanie Pullman didn’t need to die. Though she had a number of health issues, it wasn’t her diabetes or her heart disease that ended up taking her life. It was the actions of her public utility company.
As we all learned from the Phoenix New Times, the 72-year-old woman was behind on her APS bill. Last August, the company informed her they would be disconnecting her electricity. Though she made a partial payment a short time later, APS still cut the power, and several days later, she was found dead.
This story has outraged many who are understandably shocked that a public utility would simply turn off the lights, and the AC, during triple-degree-heat to a customer on a fixed-income who is already suffering from health conditions.
But this is the price we pay when money has so corrupted our politics, when company profits outweigh safety.
APS has long been known in political circles as one of the biggest power players in state politics, spending obscene amounts of money on favored candidates and involving themselves in more than just utility policy.
They’ve used their outsized influence at the Legislature to support bills that make citizen initiatives more difficult and even waded into the education arena, bankrolling a million-dollar television campaign meant to boost the governor’s favorability ratings on education policy.
As a result of their political activities, the company has enjoyed exorbitant profits and little oversight from the commission charged with regulating them.
But the death of a customer who was $51 behind on her electricity bill might just be the final straw for a public that has grown weary of the corrupting influence of money in politics.
Though Pullman’s daughter notified the Arizona Corporation Commission that her mother died after losing power in her home and that she could find no evidence of a disconnection notice after her mother made a partial payment on her bill, the commission did not take any action to halt power shut-offs or clarify the ambiguous rules surrounding when and how utility companies can disconnect service.
Even more disturbing than the Corporation Commission’s inaction on Pullman’s death was the step the staff took several months later to omit previously required information on utility shut-offs from its annual reports.
This omission just happened to occur at the same time APS shut-offs skyrocketed, increasing by 50% to more than 110,000 disconnections in one year.
Coincidence? I find that difficult to believe.
Now that the Pullman story has made headlines, our elected officials – and even APS – are puffing out their chests, declaring the importance of safety. If these individuals are serious, then there are some concrete things they can and must do now to prevent another Stephanie Pullman tragedy.
First, the Corporation Commission should take immediate action and rewrite the vague rules that govern disconnections. They must set specific dates and/or temperature limits that prevent shut-offs during our deadly summers, and stipulate all steps utilities must take to ensure low-income customers understand and are able to access funds designed specifically for this population.
Secondly, rescind the APS’s 2017 rate hike. Maricopa County has seen a surge in heat-related deaths in the past few years, and those researching the cause have reason to believe the increase correlates with the high cost of electricity during the summer months.
Stacey Champion, the consumer advocate who filed the original complaint against the 2017 APS rate hike, demonstrated many customers saw increases much higher than what was advertised. Instead of asking APS to submit to another rate case, which could a year or longer to complete, the commission can and should simply rescind the previous rate hike.
Gov. Ducey has said a legislative fix may be in order, and I agree.
That’s why it’s surprising he failed to support proposed legislation during this past legislative session that would have set temperature limits for disconnections. The bill, which was sponsored by a group of Democrats, went nowhere, but should be revived because the Corporation Commission does not regulate all utilities.
For instance, Salt River Project, which serves a large number of Arizona residents, is not under the Corporation Commission’s jurisdiction, and its customers deserve the same protections.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t address RUCO, the Residential Utility Consumer Office. This little-known agency was created by the Legislature to represent ratepayers before the Corporation Commission. But RUCO did not participate in the Champion rate review case because they were a party to the settlement agreement, and lately, it seems to be MIA on all matters concerning APS’s outrageous political spending and profit margins. Perhaps it’s time for RUCO’s director to be replaced by a true consumer advocate.
Stephanie Pullman didn’t need to die. But so long as we value profits over human safety, people like Stephanie will continue to pay the ultimate price.