Darkness is falling. The apartment building tenants stand outside talking, angry and helpless because the electric company cut off power in the morning. City officials are passing out candles. Police cars are gathering in case of trouble.
That was the picture of an electricity cutoff given in testimony yesterday before the D.C. Public Service Commission, which is considering forbidding such cutoffs in cases where landlords fail to pay utility bills even though money to cover these bills was included in the rents they collected from their tenants.
The city has more than 1,200 apartment buildings which have just one utility meter serving all the tenants, and the commission is trying to eliminate the unfairness of tenants having to suffer for the financial sins of their landlords. It is considering imposing a temporary emergency moratorium on the outoffs.
There was differing testimony yesterday on whether an emergency situation actually exists.
"Any time you are paying your rent and your electricity is cut off after you paid it, that does constitute an emergency," testified Charles Warfield, head of the city's federally funded Consumer Utility Board that called attention to the problem in an Oct. 31 letter to the commission.
Lawyers and officers of Potomse Electric Power Co., however, testified that there is no emergency. They said there have been only eight cutoffs in master-metered apartment buildings this year, each lasting from half an hour to nine hours.
According to Pepco lawyer William D. Shapiro, it is the pressure of an impending cutoff that forces many delinquent landlords to pay their bills. Without that pressure, he-said, "The landlords will see no compulsion at all" to pay their bills and the company's bad debts will mount.
Shapiro said Pepco works closely with various D.C. government agencies to ensure that any cutoff is just for a few hours - only long enough to initiate court action against the landlord for the housing code violation that results from an electricity shutoff.
The city's Department of Housing and Commmunity Development has a fund out of which it pays Pepco what the company is owed by a delinquent landlord in such a situation, according to testimony yesterday. Then the department places a lien against the property and pursues the landlord through the court process.
Although there was a good deal of talk in yesterday's hearing about this fund running low, nobody seemed to know much about it and nobody from the housing department showed up to explain it. When a reporter telephoned the department yesterday for clarification, the calls were not returned.
Shapiro testified that it would not matter if the fund ran out for two reasons: (1) the District has a statutory responsibility to pay such bills on an emergency basis and would have to dredge up the money somewhere; (2) even if the money was not found, Pepco would still reconnect service after a few hours after appropriate legal action was taken.
Pepco never shuts off electricity when the temperature is below freezing, or during the night, Shapiro said.