Thursday, January 29, 2009

A tale of a shirt-tail, One

Updated The "shirt-tail" is what my hero I. F. Stone used to call the very end of a new story where quite often the important points get buried. Here is a good example.

I'm sure you're heard the basics of the story:
Bay City, Michigan - A 93-year-old man froze to death inside his home just days after the municipal power company restricted his use of electricity because of unpaid bills, officials said.

Marvin E. Schur died "a slow, painful death," said Kanu Virani, Oakland County's deputy chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy. ...

Schur owed Bay City Electric Light & Power more than $1,000 in unpaid electric bills, Bay City Manager Robert Belleman told The Associated Press on Monday.
The city had installed a "limiter," which limits power and trips like a circuit breaker if consumption rises past a certain level. (The article said it blows like a fuse, but it also said it could be reset, so I think the circuit breaker comparison is likely more accurate.) Apparently, Mr. Schur went over the limit, lost his power and so his heat, and froze to death. The neighbor who discovered his body said "the insides of his windows were full of ice the morning we found him."

Okay, here's the shirt-tail part. Belleman said that after 10 days, if the homeowner hasn't paid utility bills or made arrangements to do so, power is shut off entirely. Even after admitting that he didn't know if anyone had actually contacted Schur to make sure he understood what was being done, Belleman said
he didn't believe the city did anything wrong.

"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."
He doesn't believe the city did anything wrong. After turning off the heat in a 93-year old man's house in the middle of winter in Michigan without even knowing if that man knew what was going on, he still says the city did nothing wrong.

Oh, no, the fault all lies with the neighbors because they didn't watch closely enough. It's all their fault. It's all somebody else's fault, anyway, nothing to do with us, no siree, we're just public servants, certainly nothing to do with me, I'm just the freaking city manager!

And I can just imagine the conversation:
Neighbor: I'm calling about my neighbor because I'm keeping an eye on him, like a good neighbor, and he has no heat.

Appropriate city department: Tell him to pay his bill. :click:
At least some states have laws that bar cutting off power or heat in winter. Apparently Michigan is not among them. It damn well should be before more people die.

Updated with, well, with an update, courtesy of CNN.

First off, it turns out that Michigan does have a state law that bans private utility companies from cutting off service to senior citizens between November and April. But because Bay City Electric Light & Power is municipally-owned, it's exempt.

However, local and state officials say Schur's death was avoidable and have begun a review of Bay City Electric's rules and procedures which could lead to a change in the law so as to put municipals under the same requirements as private utilities.
The utility has stopped its practice of cutting power to customers who don't pay their bills, the utility's acting director, Philip Newton, told CNN. Recently, that had been happening as often as 200 times a week.

The utility also has removed all "limiters".... In Schur's case, the limiter was never reset, and it's unclear whether he knew how to do that.
Maybe that's because
[i]t appears no one from the utility company had personal contact with Schur, in phone or in person.
Meanwhile, City Manager Robert Belleman, the man who insisted the city did nothing wrong and it was all the neighbors' fault, now
admits seniors who may be confused or in no condition to venture outside to reset a limiter in freezing temperatures need extra supervision.
And the mayor is saying "We have to do everything we can to make sure this doesn't happen again."

I truly wonder if they'd be saying those things if this hadn't hit the wires and gained some national attention.

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