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Opinion: Tallahassee Utilities must establish a minimum shut-off amount

Recently, Tallahassee Utilities, a municipal utility in Tallahassee, Florida, shut off a woman’s power for owing 8 cents on her utility bill.

Although the issue was resolved, several customers shared similar stories about losing power for owing mere pennies, illuminating an unfair and long-standing utility practice.

Power is an essential service and a consumer's right to energy must be protected. In response to this regressive practice, I wrote an op-ed arguing that Tallahassee needs to adopt a minimum shut-off amount of $50, for example. Prolonged periods of no power could be a matter of life or death for many folks who depend upon electronic medical devices or temperature-sensitive medicines.

Tallahassee Utilities, along with hundreds of utilities across the country, are currently planning how to transition their energy system away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy. This transition is supposed to be done in a just way, where decarbonization reduces inequality and opens up market access to historically-excluded populations. Now is the time for utilities to review their policies to ensure consumers have access to affordable energy, especially during periods of extreme weather.

The op-ed caught the attention of Tallahassee City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow, who attempted to bring up the idea at a subsequent City Commission meeting.

Ultimately, however, the idea was struck down. According to Tallahassee Utilities, there’s an existing internal provision that “prevents shut-offs for owing pennies,” but when Commissioner Matlow asked for the defined amount, Tallahassee Utilities abstained from revealing that information.

Although Tallahassee Utilities claims they follow an internal minimum shut-off policy, I question how often it’s followed. The policy is not posted anywhere publicly or codified within City Code, which means there's no accountability mechanism when this policy is not honored, because there's no record of it. I am also concerned about Tallahassee Utilities’ continued practice of disconnecting customers without notice, which is against City Code.

For now, it seems there’s diminished appetite to codify the minimum shut-off policy. However, I will continue to collect customers’ stories about their experiences with Tallahassee Utilities to maintain the conversation and a record of policy violations.

If your utility provider is Tallahassee Utilities and you've been disconnected without notice or for owing less than $100, please share you story with me at shelby@shelbytlh.com.