PHOENIX — Arizona's largest electric utility announced Thursday it will temporarily stop disconnecting residential customers who are behind on their payments while it reviews its policies in the wake of a customer death.
Arizona Public Service Co. said the decision was made after reports that a customer died last year while power was disconnected, comments at recent meetings of its main regulator, and the onset of summer heat.
The company's action came on the same day that Phoenix New Times published a report about the death of a 72-year-old Sun City West woman whose electricity was cut off in September because she failed to pay a bill for $176.84.
The New Times noted APS records obtained by the woman's daughter showed she paid $125 about a week after getting a disconnect notice, but the utility commonly known as APS still turned off her power. The temperature that week was well above 100 degrees in metro Phoenix.
"Our hearts go out to the family of the customer," APS said in a statement. "The safety of our fellow Arizonans is our top priority. We want all our customers to stay connected, especially during the summer."
APS Vice President Stacy Derstine said the company will review its disconnection policies over the next month and may extend the moratorium on disconnections. It intends to consult with advocates for low-income customers, community organizations and public agencies to find out how best to allow customers to keep their power on. The goal is not just to craft new policies for APS but to create a statewide effort on dangerous weather and utility disconnections.
"We want to do what's right -- if there are processes, things that we can do to better serve our customers, we're there," Derstine said. This is an Arizona issue -- we absolutely will be spearheading this."
Derstine said she could not discuss the specifics of the disconnection that led to the Sun City West woman's death.
Customers would still be responsible for paying their bills, even if APS is temporarily halting disconnections.
The company noted it has a number of assistance programs for those struggling to pay their power bills, including ways to set up payment plans, extend due dates and receive support paying bills. For instance, low-income customers can get a 25 percent discount on their power bills, and some can also qualify for up to $400 a year in payment assistance from outside groups.
The decision came after KPNX-TV reported that the company's disconnections surged last year to more than 110,000 from an average of about 73,000 in the previous five years.
The company pointed to a temporary halt to disconnections in 2017 as skewing the 2018 numbers, although Derstine said this year's shutoffs are on track to equal 2016 numbers, where were the highest of the five years preceding the recent spike.
Derstine said the company has a policy of stopping disconnections during periods of extreme heat, and the policy review will be designed to see if existing rules are sufficient, and not just for APS.
"There are multiple utilities in the Arizona footprint, in the state," she said. "This is certainly something that requires many voices at the table so that we can craft the best process and policy that's good for our customers in recognition of the fact that it can get extremely hot here."