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Advocating for Extreme Heat Protections in Tallahassee

After reading an article from the Washington Post calling for a ban on utility shut-offs during extreme heat, I shared it within the Tally100 Discussion group and said we should too. Utilities can shut off electricity for nonpayment during a heat wave in 31 states, including Florida, but the City of Tallahassee owns its utility and has the authority to make its own rules - like suspending disconnections during extreme heat. This policy change could provide needed protection to customers more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and death, typically economically disadvantaged communities who are also on the frontlines of the current climate crisis.

The meeting with the City of Tallahassee Utilities Staff focused on discussing the City's current policies and practices around utility disconnections and the possibility of modifying them given the recent stretches of extreme heat.

Below is a recap of the meeting, where we discussed what Tallahassee Utilities is willing to do to further reduce disconnections amidst extreme heat.

After the pleasantries, we emphasized the importance of responding to the extreme heat crisis with clear, established policies that apply on a utility-baiss instead of a case-by-case basis, then inquired what Tallahassee Utilities was willing to do to protect the health and lives of Tallahassee's residents. For a background on the extreme heat utility disconnections issue, you can view this short brief I wrote.

Discussion Points:

  1. Per Ms. Miaisha's suggestion, Tallahassee Utilities said they would be willing to communicate the County's available cooling stations after customers are disconnected from power so that they have a place to receive some relief while waiting for reconnection. We didn't get into the details of how Tallahassee Utilities would advertise/communicate these programs, but there could be a possibility to include this information in Tallahassee Utilities's monthly bill inserts (which 53% of customers receive) and/or through digital means.

  2. We mentioned the disconnection bans that exist at other utilities, like Florida Power & Light, which pauses disconnections once the heat index reaches or exceeds 95 degrees. At first, City Staff seemed resistant to the idea of mirroring a similar policy -- banning shut-offs at a certain heat index or temperature range. At first, Staff seemed concerned about bad debt being passed onto the rest of the customers, but he was reminded that the debt wouldn't be defaulted on, just disconnections would be delayed during periods of extreme heat. After that point was made, Staff seemed to be more open to the idea of revising the City's existing weather policy, which says "when the day ahead hourly temperatures are forecasted to be higher than 100 degrees for eight or more consecutive hours, the City shall suspend the disconnection process for non-payment." Apparently, the City hasn't actually carried out this policy before. This comment opened up a chance for us to make the suggestion of re-evaluating the temperature threshold within the weather policy to potentially mirror what other states and utilities have done -- banning disconnections when the heat index reaches a certain number or when the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory. Staff said they have the executive power to recommend a change to the weather policy and then work with City Manager Reese Goad to bring an agenda item to the City Commission to vote on the policy change. This might be the best avenue to accomplish a more reasonable ban on disconnections amidst extreme heat.

  3. According to Tallahassee Utilities, any customer who calls Tallahassee Utilities looking for relief options is directed to contact local social agencies. If a customer does that, Tallahassee Utilities exercises its discretion to push back the disconnection to give the customer some time to apply for the program. Then, once the customer applies and is accepted, the disconnection order is canceled while Tallahassee Utilities waits for payment from the social agency -- this whole process is called Promise to Pay. We mentioned the desire to codify this process and replicate a policy similar to the State of Ohio, which prohibits utilities from disconnecting service once the customer has applied for a relief program. However, City Staff didn't seem interested in codifying this existing practice.

  4. We talked about waiving late fees and reconnection fees, but City Staff weren't interested in those relief options.

  5. Towards the end of the conversation, I brought up the CEP and asked Michael Ohlsen how the CEP can be rooted in proaction -- we had to ask for this meeting with the City and for reconsideration of existing policies in light of extreme heat. In the future, it would be ideal if the City recognized this issue and were encouraged to independently review current practices and investigate how they can update policies to center equity and provide protections, especially to marginalized communities. The conversation ended with Michael mentioning how health (and participation) should be a core tenet within the CEP. I suspect he'll do some thinking on this and potentially propose a slight change to the CEP to ensure this angle is covered. He said this consideration wouldn't derail the current trajectory of the CEP.

Action Items:

  1. Follow up with Tallahassee Utilities Staff about how they will advertise the cooling stations -- maybe by leaving a flyer listing cooling stations after serving a disconnection?
  2. Investigate the last 5 NWS-issued heat advisories and compare the actual temperature, wet bulb temperature, and heat index on those days. This information will be used to potentially recommend a better baseline to trigger the suspension of utility disconnections during periods of extreme heat. -- Kim said she can work on this.
  3. Discuss if this effort will be a Tally100-backed effort or independent of Tally100 -- I suspect this can be brought up at a near future meeting.

Additional updates:

  • On August 7th, I attended the Tally100 Coalition meeting and summarized what happened at the August 2nd meeting. By the end of the meeting, we agreed to follow up with Mr. Barnes to let him know that we hope to deliver some gathered research by the end of the month to negotiate the temperature threshold for the weather policy.