Consumers says it reached out before Hazel Park death

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Consumers Energy officials said they made several attempts to contact a Hazel Park customer before turning off a natural gas account last month — a move that may have contributed to the death of a 69-year-old man.

The Michigan Public Service Commission, the state agency that oversees utilities, has asked Consumers Energy for a report on the steps that led to the shut-off. John Skelley was found dead in a home on Feb.1, and authorities have attributed the death to several factors, including hypothermia.

Skelley was not the account holder at the home.

“We did not know this gentleman (Skelley) was a roommate living in the house,” said Debra Dodd, a spokeswoman for Consumers Energy. “We didn’t know he had any health issues.”

The utility had shut gas off at the West Pearl Street home multiple times prior to the most recent shut-off, Jan. 19, according to Consumers. Customer Joseph Mixen had requested gas be turned on at the home on Nov. 18.

Mixen made an initial payment of $760.28 to pay a previous balance and the gas service was reinstated. But Consumers officials said it was the last payment received from Mixen.

As a result, Dodd said the utility sent three shut-off notices — on Dec. 18, Dec. 24 and Dec. 31. It received no response and, with no phone number on record, was unable to reach Mixen.

Gas service was eventually shut off on Jan. 19, and Consumers reported no other contacts with anyone at the home afterward. In an official statement released this week, the company stressed there are programs designed to assist residents with their bills, particularly in emergency situations.

“But we must be notified that they need help,” the statement reads. “In this case, we unfortunately had no contact from the customer that he needed assistance or wanted to restart his payment plan, even after three proactive notices were sent to him. Information about obtaining help was also left on the door at the time service was interrupted.”

The Public Service Commission gave Consumers a March 31 deadline to file its report. The commission is revising its standards and billing practices for residential gas and electric service.

“The current billing rules have provisions concerning service shutoff procedures, medical emergencies and winter protection plans,” Public Service Commission officials said in a statement. “The commission is hopeful that the report prepared by Consumers Energy, and the subsequent review to be conducted by the MPSC staff, may uncover additional measures that, if implemented, could avert a repetition of this tragedy.”

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