In January of 2009, 93 year-old Marvin Schur died a “slow, painful death,” according to autopsy reports, from hypothermia that occurred after an electricity limiting device was placed on his home. Schur was never informed a limiter had been placed on his home, may have suffered from short-term memory loss, was living alone and was found frozen to death in his ranch-style home at a temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to Michigan State Detective Don A. Rauschenberger, the lowest the thermostat meter displayed was 52 degrees. The actual temperature in the home, however, was lower, reaffirmed by water frozen in the sinks and the icing over of the windowpanes in the yellow home located at 1602 S. Chilson St., in the south end of Bay City, Michigan.
Schur’s death brings to light the state of utilities shut off legislation in the state of Michigan, controversy over protocol enforced by electricity companies informing delinquent residents their power is limited and the ultimate cost of living on limited utilities in the winter of a recession.
Rauschenberger compares the Schur case investigation to the assembly of a puzzle.
“You start going through the pieces, and the edge pieces you assemble first are the ‘when did it happen and where did it happen’,” Rauschenberger said. “Some pieces of the puzzle may be missing, and extra pieces might be in the box, but you can still see the picture and figure out what happened.”
On February 19, Democratic Senator Jim Barcia and Democratic State Representative Jeff Mayes of Bay City Michigan introduced a bipartisan, bicameral shutoff protection plan in the Michigan House and Senate to protect utilities consumers by banning all utility shut-offs during the winter months, according to a press release issued on Barcia’s Web site. On March 31, the plan passed in the Michigan House of Representatives.
In the mid 1980s, following an oil embargo and spiking costs of gas and electricity, utilities services nationwide began using electricity limiters as incentive for delinquent customers to begin paying their bills. Limiters are installed outside of homes, limiting the amount of power utilized and blowing like a fuse box if that amount is surpassed.
“After hearing concerns raised by the public and talking to the city of Bay City, we then realized we needed to do something in Lansing,” Mayes said. “Senator Barcia and I set immediately to work trying to review the state shut off policy and see what needed to be amended.”
The plan, composed of a series of bills, would ban all utility shut-offs (including municipal) whose utility regulations are not governed by state Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC), from December 1 to March 31, requires utilities to give all customers at least 15 days notice before a shut off and would prevent electricity providers from using limiters until the PSC establishes uniform methods governing their usage.
The goal of the plan is to uniform utility regulations state-wide, regardless of whether the utility provider is a municipal company or one governed by the PSC.
“Consumer potentials should be afforded to all citizens regardless of where they live or who their utility provider is,” Barcia said. “There are other protections involving a variety of attempts to reach and encourage people, including through robo calls, and get them to completely pay their bills or at least make payments.”
According to Mayes, many Michigan utilities providers currently have shut off protections for at risk individuals (such as senior citizens over age 65 or those with disabilities) in the winter months that are regulated by the Michigan PSC. One problem utilities face is trying to identify these seniors.
“Often times the utilities would spend a lot of money trying to shut these individuals’ power off, then find out they were seniors and had to turn the electricity back on and recoup those dollars,” Mayes said. “By law we want to have electricity providers make more of an effort to identify seniors in the service territories and give them additional outreach.”
If the plan also passes in the Senate, it would ban winter shut offs from occurring December 1 to March 31 starting next year for all utilities customers, not just the elderly or disabled.
“How do you define it?” Barcia said. “Should a 25 year-old single mom with three little children, toddlers, not be protected whereas somebody 65 should be?”
Under current BCELP municipal shut off procedures as of 1997, service limiters can “remain in place for a period of 10 calendar days.” The charter also states that limiters cannot be applied to homes in which the person has life-sustaining powered medical devices, and that a shutoff notice must be administered to the customer 10 days prior to the date of the shut off.
“Municipally owned electric utilities have been exempted for 100 years from the public service commission; they have been unregulated utilities,” Barcia said. “The view always was that they have been regulated by the local city commissions and city government.”
According to Barcia, BCELP didn’t have PSC approval on the electrical rates because the majority of the rates were lower than what was offered at Consumer’s Energy. Bay City rates are about 20 percent lower than the ones at Consumer’s Energy.
Also stated in the proposed shutoff protection plan is a regulation that would include strict penalties for utility companies that improperly shut off consumer’s power without adequate warning and following of protocol.
Fines collected during these violations would be turned over to the Low Income and Efficiency Fund, which help low income residents gain protection from shut-offs and promote energy efficient education.
“It doesn’t have to go that long unpaid (to amount to a cost that results in a shut off),” Barcia said. “You have to take into consideration how cold the temperature is, what the wind chill is if you get a strong lake effect wind and how well-insulated your home is. There are a variety of factors that can determine on the bill you owe.”
Under the proposed legislation, municipal power providers, including BCELP, would be governed under the PSC for regulations involving utility shut-offs. Currently, BCELP is not subject to PSC regulations since it is a municipal electricity provider.
“Municipal companies were self regulated and they still will be in which local boards oversee the utility,” Mayes said. “Historically we have done that and will continue to do that, but there may be needs for standard regulations that the municipal electrics would adopt.”
On January 27, one week after Schur was discovered frozen to death in his residence, Barcia and Mayes called for a review of Schur’s death, and a review conducted by the PSC to review current standing shut off policies and offer recommendations on how to amend the legislation to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.
“I would anticipate dialoguing conversation will continue with our senate colleagues to improve and strengthen the package,” Mayes said.
According to Mayes, 56 votes were needed for the shutoff protection package to pass.
“At the present time, (shutoff protection package) has had broadband support with the utilities: municipal electric providers-they’re on board, a number of consumers groups are on board, the Michigan attorney general is on board for the package,” Mayes said.
Now that the package passed in the house, the bills will be sent to Governor Jennifer Granholm.
“In (Granholm’s) State of the State address, she spoke specifically to our package of legislation and strongly supports it,” Barcia said. “She called for an outright statewide ban on utilities shutoffs, but there is reluctance by her chairs to ban shut offs entirely.”
Outlined in the shutoff protection package, the shutoffs would be banned from December 1 to March 31 effective next year.
“Jeff (Mayes) doesn’t think we have the political will to ban utilities shutoffs completely,” Barcia said. “But statewide now with PSC regulated utilities providers there are no shut offs of utilities allowed between November 1 and April 1.”
Both officials agree that updated legislation is necessary for the safety of Michigan residents.
“(The death of Marvin Schur) was a very sad and unfortunate accident,” Mayes said.
Uncertainty surrounds use of electrical limiters
In 1985, the Bay City utility Bay City Electric Light and Power (BCELP) introduced limiters as a “pilot program.” In a memo from the Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC) to Commissioner Monica Martinez dated March 18, a service limiter is described as “a device that restricts the flow of electricity into a customer’s residence.” The Memo goes on to report BCELP states that the limiter is used to promote the safety and welfare of the customer. “It will supply enough electric power to operate essential services such as heat/refrigeration. The pervasive reason for our interest is…as a means of collecting delinquent bills.”
The self-described “Service Extender” of BCELP, or limiter, is designed to provide 10 amps of electricity. Tests to determine how much electrical usage could trip the limiter were performed in the early 1980s. In one test, a furnace, refrigerator, two TVs and a freezer were supported by the limiter; the addition of a CB radio tripped the limiter.
On a Service Extender Device Notice that was delivered to Marvin Schur’s residence when the limiter was attached by a city worker to the meter socket outside, how-to directions and diagrams are included to restore power if the circuit breaker trips. The notice states enough electricity is allowed to operate a central heat blower fan, several lights and a refrigerator. The Masthead at the top depicts a sailboat next to Bay City, Michigan in serif font with a tagline: “A beautiful view…of life”.
In order to understand how the limiter device limits electricity, it is important to consider how electricity is distributed throughout the state of Michigan.
According to Jeff Holyfield of Consumers Energy, there are three main parts involved in the production and consumption of electricity which consist of generation, transmission along “interstate highways” at a high voltage level, and local areas that distribute the system voltage at a lower voltage to its “load,” or destination. The electricity is lost as it travels long distances, so the voltage is increased to promote less power loss.
“Electricity is transferred at varying levels, but there can be 14,000 volts of electricity going down a power line on any street,” Holyfield said. “As it comes to local areas it is decreased to around 120 volts.”
The national power grid is composed of three major interconnections including Western (West of the Rockies), Eastern (East of the Rockies) and Ercot (Texas). However, electricity flow cannot be routed or controlled due to the laws of physics governing power flowing via the path of least resistance.
“When you turn on a light, there’s no way of knowing where the electricity was generated,” Holyfield said.
Electricity transmission is regulated by federal, regional, state and local entities. The Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC) is responsible for regulation of electric utilities in the state, which includes nine investor-owned electric providers (such as Consumer’s Energy) and 10 rural electric providers.
Municipal electric providers are not governed by the PSC. According to the American Public Power Association (APPA), municipal electric providers or public power utilities are “owned and operated by the people they serve through a local or state regulation.” Therefore, regulations enforced by the PSC, including the rule that bans all power shut offs from disabled or senior citizen (over age 65) customers from November 1 to April 1, do not apply to municipal providers.
If regulated under legislation that unifies protocol to ban shut offs during these winter months, Marvin Schur’s home would not have received a limiter.
According to baycitymi.org, BCELP is a municipal utility owned by Bay City that was founded in 1868 as the Bay City Gas Light Company. Power is provided “from wholesale purchases, ownership of coal-fired generators Belle River and Campbell through the Michigan Public Power Agency, and local… generating capacity at our Water Street and Henry Street plants” and distributed in a local area that serves Bay City and surrounding townships.
“Bay City Electric Light and Power serves over 20,000 customers,” said Charles Brunner, Mayor of Bay City. “There are about 200 shut offs weekly, and only one (city worker) who does it.”
On January 27, one week after the discovery that Marvin Schur had frozen to death, Bay City officials ordered the removal of all residential electricity limiters in the city in response to public outcry. BCELP utility workers removed between 60 and 70 limiters from meters outside of homes.
“The decision (to remove the limiters) was made very quickly,” Brunner said. “The City of Bay City is currently under investigation by the attorney general; I don’t believe we will use the limiters at all anymore.”
According to Brunner, in the first week following Schur’s death, in response to print, online and broadcast coverage from FOX news, MSNBC, ABC news and the Bay City Times, he received 728 e-mails and numerous voicemails from citizens across the country. The e-mails kept coming, and Brunner has currently responded to over 1,000 emails and 50-75 phone calls.
“I was called a Nazi, a murderer…everything you could possibly imagine,” Brunner said. “It is truly a tragic situation and as a city official and elected leader I am deeply saddened. I’m not the policy maker, but I am still the face of Bay City and we are going to make sure this never happens again.”
During the investigation of Schur’s death, Michigan State Detective Don A. Rauschenberger contacted several of the 43 municipal power companies in Michigan to learn what policies they employed regarding limiters. When asked, the utilities stated they did not use limiters. Upon further questioning, Rauschenberger learned these limiters were discontinued in the wake of Schur’s death, and the removal of the limiters used by BCELP.
“Nobody had a (limiter regulation) policy significantly more stringent or different than Bay City’s was,” Rauschenberger said. “One (municipal utility) responded, ‘We’re just glad it wasn’t us’.”
Water trickled from the bathroom faucet, falling to the floor past the water queued up in the well of the sink that had frozen solid. The bathtub and kitchen faucets were also turned on in an effort to stop the pipes from bursting when the water froze. Near a workbench in the basement were birch logs, appearing to be recently cut into pieces of kindling for use in a nearby cast iron stove. The furnace’s thermostat had been set at 90 degrees. But on January 17, the windowpanes were frosted with ice.
Marvin Schur, 93 year-old Bay City resident, had attempted to stay alive in the days leading up to his death. On Wednesday, January 13, a limiter device was installed by a city utility worker to restrict Schur’s electrical usage due to $1,077 in unpaid electrical bills to the municipal provider, Bay City Electric Light and Power (BCELP). However, due to a broken furnace, Schur had been relying solely on electrical appliances to supplement home heat. It was the frosted windowpanes that led to the discovery of Schur’s body by neighbors George and Shannon Pauwels on the morning of January 17.
According to Rauschenberger, Schur was found located on his bedroom floor on January 17. Schur was wearing his eyeglasses, a t-shirt, two other shirts along with a sweater and pants, but no socks.
“He (Schur) had frostbite on his feet,” Rauschenberger said. “Frostbite hurts, and people tend to take their clothes off of the frostbite to relieve the pain.”
According to Rauschenberger, a trend became apparent in Schur’s energy consumption in the months before his death. Compared to 2007, in October, November, and December of 2008 natural gas usage decreased a minimum of 50 percent while electrical use increased 200 plus to as much as 600 plus percent. Schur’s furnace, which ran on natural gas, was found to be defective, and he began using electricity-fueled appliances to heat his home, which accounted for the spike in electrical utilities costs.
A furnace company, independent of the company that installed the furnace, examined the furnace to determine why it had failed.
“The electrical control board for the furnace (powered by natural gas) was defective,” Rauschenberger said. “It was not allowing the gas valve to open…the hot water tank was all that was running off of natural gas in the residence.”
Having lived through a depression, two wars (he served as a medic in World War II), Schur was described as independent and proud by those that knew him, and did not ask for help with his furnace when neighbors visited in early November to assist with installing a new TV and on Thanksgiving to bring over a holiday food basket.
“There was face-to-face contact when Schur was aware his furnace was broken, but nothing was said,” Rauschenberger said.
Routinely, Schur would sit in his chair near the window; neighbors would see him every couple days and wave a greeting. The last time the Pauwels waved to Schur was on January 14, a day after the limiter had been installed.
The city worker who applied the limiter did not make direct contact with Schur informing him he was applying the limiter. A salmon-colored door hanger and envelope containing directions on resetting the limiter was found at the residence, but the envelope had never been opened. According to Rauschenberger, Schur did not appear to understand the situation he was facing.
Previously, Schur’s neighbors asked Schur if he needed any groceries, and Schur’s response was that there was milk in the freezer and he took caution to plan ahead and stock up on supplies. However, Rauschenberger reported that there were a few boxed and canned food in the cupboards however there were only six packages of green beans in the freezer.
“Is that a state of dementia or is that a stubborn gentleman who doesn’t want help,” Rauschenberger said. “I don’t have the answer.”
Over $6,000 was found paper-clipped to stacks of bills from Consumer’s Energy, the City of Bay City, and AT&T, which was more than enough to cover the cost, according to the original report from the Bay City Police Department. Extra amounts of money were attached to bills, covering the previous month’s bill in some cases.
“If he had paid all the bills, he probably would have been 1000 dollars ahead,” Rauschenberger said. “The money was there.”
Also discovered at the residence were flashlights, a coalman lantern, matches, and on a counter in the basement one screw-in fuse found next to a set of pliers.
“My opinion is he (Schur) thought maybe the fuse was bad in the furnace and tried to change it,” said Rauschenberger. “He didn’t have the dexterity or strength in his hands, so he used the pliers.”
The door to the oven in the kitchen was also discovered open, presumably as another means of heating the home, and while the phone was disconnected, the last number dialed belonged to McCoy Heating and Cooling Company. Macoy had not installed Schur’s furnace, but it was the first large advertisement for heating in the yellow pages of the phonebook. On a nearby shopping list, LP propane tanks were written down.
“The protocol followed during the installation of the limiter wasn’t the sole cause (of Schur’s death), and I think it will be hard pressed to convince a jury there was a criminal job,” Rauschenberger said. “You can second guess and armchair quarterback it, but there was a problem with the heat source, Marvin knew it and tried to live with it the best he could. He tried to call for help, but he never asked for help.”
On January 16, The Pauwels came to Schur’s door and knocked, but Schur did not come to the door. Rauschenberger believes Schur died on this day, and the gases expelled during Shur’s decomposition turned into the vapor that iced the glass windowpanes.
Unclear Policies and Documentation
When Michigan State Detective Don A. Rauschenberger continued his investigation into the laws enforced surrounding Bay City municipal shutoff procedures and limiters, he initially encountered evidence that exposed gaps in inter-departmental city correspondence that led to questions regarding limiter use policy and protocol.
On February 19, 1985, an inter-office communication memo generated by Richard G. Harris, then director of electric utilities, was sent to Dave Barnes, the then City Manager of Bay City regarding the service limiter and extender program. The memo states the Light Department staff met with Doug Haag and agreed that the limiter pilot policy would work. It asked for Barnes’ approval to implement the pilot program beginning March 1, 1985.
An account of a response from Barnes’ approving or vetoing the limiter policy was never recovered.
“Until I asked for a copy of the policy, Newton (Phil Newton, current director of BCELP), didn’t know that a policy existed,” Rauschenberger said. “A good question is ‘what is your policy on updating policies?'”
According to Rauschenberger, Bellman said that in the limiter policy there is face-to-face contact required for city workers to inform customers that their electricity is being restricted with a limiter device. However, if they are unable to directly inform a customer face to face, there is a clause that states they can leave a service extension notice on the door of the residence.
“I have not seen this regulation (the requirement for a face-to-face contact) in policy,” Rauschenberger said.
Gaps in inter-departmental city communication further complicate the situation.
According to Rauschenberger, in 1985, when the limiter pilot program began, there existed a job of a collector in the Bay City’s Accounts Receivable Department. The role of that position was for the collector to knock on doors, complete a “field investigation” to determine if it was safe to place a limiter on the customer’s home, and ultimately collect money or give advance notice that a limiter would be applied if no funds were received.
The city’s policy for the limiter states that for the application of the limiter to be legal, there has to be no medical, electricity-using life-supporting equipment on the premise, a field investigation needs to be completed to determine if the person is physically and mentally capable of operating and resetting the limiter should it blow a circuit, and in winter when no contact is made, a service suspension notice is to be left.
In the years since the introduction of the limiter pilot program, the collector position in Accounts Receivable was eliminated due to issues occurring over amounts that collectors obtained, and amounts that customers claimed to have made, according to Rauschenberger. When questioned, Accounts Receivable denied that the elimination of the position had to do with a realignment issue or cost-saving measures.
According to Rauschenberger, Accounts Receivable claimed the position was now being handled by the eclectic department technicians, but no memos were identified that indicated that BCELP knew it was now their job.
In 1997, a handwritten note in the BCELP policy changed the days that a limiter would be left installed on a residence from 14 to 10.
Furthermore, in December of 1983, the utility director’s response to the implementation of the limiter program prior to its initiation stated that BCELP needed to be concerned with winter weather, and take every precaution not to have someone’s death result from their shut off policies.
However, Schur’s death did result due to a combination of factors including the shut off policies of BCELP. While in the 1980’s, limiter use was banned by utility companies governed by the PSC, in response to public outcry and a continuing investigation, the PSC is taking cautions to prevent another death by extending their ban on utility shut offs past the perimeter of April 1, according to Mayes.
“I believe that the Michigan Public Service Commission has extended the shut off protection for this year longer than the traditional shut off deadline,” Mayes said. “As the summer months occur, individuals will be at risk for shut offs if they do not pay their bills.”
The first week of April, the Schur investigation was completed and handed over to Bay County prosecutor Kurt Asbury. On March 31, the shut off protection package plan was voted on in the state House. The plan passed and is proceeding to the Senate.
“The population is getting older and kids are moving farther away from their parents,” Mayes said. “Our interest is increase and standardizing shut off protections around Michigan, and extending standard protections to municipal companies to protect those that may be at risk.”
“It’s the right decision not to turn power off,” Brunner said. “Baby boomers, myself included…are getting older. I have a lot of compassion because it is something that we all will be dealing with as we live longer.”
Public Outcry and Proposed Legislation
The impact of the Schur investigation has both local and nation-wide impacts. While Marvin Schur had no children, he did have nieces and nephews. According to a statement made on April 23, Bay County Prosecutor Kurt Asbury announced no criminal charges would be filed. However, a wrongful death suit could still be sought by family members.
Marvin Schur also left behind a sizable estate, and Michigan’s legislature and departmental policy has been analyzed thoroughly as a result of Schur’s death. If passed in the Senate, the shut off protection package could potentially save lives in the future.
In his will, Schur left $600,000 to the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) department of Bay Regional Medical Center.
“He was very gracious gentleman,” Barcia said.
According to Barcia, within state legislation, they are trying to develop a system where you don’t have to use your social security number to determine people’s ages and have a clue of who are the most vulnerable energy consumers in terms of forgetfulness. This is a means to protect more incidents like Schur’s from repeating.
“It takes a tremendous amount of people to determine who the most vulnerable residents are,” Barcia said.
In the western part of the state, a secondary incident followed the death of Marvin Schur resulting in a death due to lack of utilities in Michigan, according to Barcia. In Fruitport, Michigan a family had their utilities shut off, and they utilized a kerosene heater. A fire was started, and both of the children in the family were killed.
Brunner hopes updated legislation will prevent such deaths.
“The best we can do is to make sure an incident like Marvin Schur’s never happens again,” Brunner said. “On behalf of Bay City.”
Some residents in Bay City agree that an update in legislation is necessary.
“I think its really unfortunate that it (BCELP) was a small municipal electricity company, and you would think that they would have closer contact with the people that they serve…this guy (Schur) didn’t get anything other than a worker just putting a limiter on his home,” said Fred Youn, family practice physician in Bay County. “I’m not big on big government, but I think it’s important for legislation to be revised to prevent this from happening again.”
Consumer’s Energy, which supplies power to 1.8 million customers, 1.7 million of which are residential, is governed under regulations by the PSC that Barcia and Mayes hope to extend to all electricity providers with the proposal of their shut off protection plan including banning winter shut offs from December 1 to March 31.
Electrical providers such as Consumer’s Energy and Detroit Energy (DTE) also follow other protocol that they believe is proactive before issuing out utility shut offs as a last resort.
“Field people are trained to give customers one more chance,” Holyfield said. “We (Consumer’s Energy) deal with customers in good times and bad, and our role is to ask customers to help us help them. We are able to work with customers in need to set up payment plans.”
Consumer’s Energy also includes a notice in November utility bills that describes assistance programs available and explains ways to use energy more efficiently and save on total utility costs.
Officials and electricity customers now must wait to see if legislation changes will result from the death of Schur as an effort to safeguard lives.
According to Barcia, President Obama’s stimulus package for Michigan also includes 235 million to be spent on home weatherization through home agencies in the state. However, the money has not been appropriated yet.
Still, the emails continue to arrive to state officials regarding the Schur case.
“I literally felt awful,” Brunner said. “The magnitude didn’t completely hit home until I heard the outcry from the public. When I respond back (to e-mails and voicemails), some are glad to hear (the city of Bay City) is under investigation. This was truly a tragedy.”