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Rock Falls admits cold-weather cutoffs

Official says she wasn't aware of practice

ROCK FALLS – The city acknowledged Friday that it had turned off residents' power when the temperature had dropped below 20 degrees – in violation of state law and city ordinance. 

In a telephone interview, City Administrator Robbin Blackert revealed the utility cutoffs a week after Sauk Valley Media published a story about the issue. In the story, a man reported the city had threatened to cut off his electricity on a day in which the low temperature was forecast to be below zero.

At the time, Blackert said she couldn't address a specific electricity customer's situation but that the city was complying with state law.

Friday, Blackert said she had since investigated city practice and found three instances in January in which customers' services were terminated for nonpayment when the temperature was forecast at lower than 20.

In two of the cases, she said, customers made payment within a couple of hours. The other paid the next day. 

"Those customers are being issued a credit and being notified about what happened," she said. 

In the winter, the city utility had been putting nonpaying customers on limiters, which reduce the amount of electricity they can use, Blackert said. After 2 weeks, she said, the city would then cut off service, no matter the temperature.

"Even though the current policy states that this practice was not appropriate, the staff was following procedures on what they were originally trained on," she said. "They were following what they thought was correct. At no time were we aware that such a practice was occurring."

She thanked Sauk Valley Media for spotlighting the issue.

"Any shortcomings like that need to be brought to our attention," she said. "It's good that this has come out."

From now on, Blackert said, the city will create a paper trail that will be stored in the utility's computer system, including weather forecasts.

Last week, Sauk Valley Media sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the city for documents related to disconnection of customers' utility services. The city redacted much of the information, citing customers' privacy. As such, it was hard to determine whether the city had disconnected customers for nonpayment, rather than for other reasons.

From the information the city released, it appeared as if three customers had been disconnected on January days in which the temperature dropped under 20 degrees.

Late last month, resident Kerry McGrady said he was behind by 2 months on his city utility bills, owing about $600. He said he planned to pay back that money with his tax refund. 

The city, McGrady said, left a message on his phone that it would cut off his services the next morning. On the day in question, the lowest temperature was forecast at below zero. 

"We'll freeze to death," said McGrady, who lives in the 300 block of Fifth Avenue with his fiancée and three children. "I called back and asked, 'Could you please not do this to my children?' I have been paying for 10 years. They said they would cut off first thing tomorrow morning."

After he called around, including to the newspaper, the city agreed not to cut off his service during the freezing weather.

When Sauk Valley Media emailed Blackert last week, she replied, "There had been no issue in the past with our disconnection procedures, perhaps only unhappy delinquent customers who are looking for any avenue to avoid disconnection."

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