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Surprise -- your heat's turned off

With temperatures hovering in the low 20s Wednesday afternoon, tenants in the apartments at 17 Eighth St. in Cloquet were stunned when Minnesota Power workers turned off the electricity to their building.

Heat turned off at apartment building
Minnesota Power disconnected the heat at this apartment complex at 17 Eighth St. in Cloquet on Wednesday. (Jana Peterson / jpeterson@pinejournal.com)

With temperatures hovering in the low 20s Wednesday afternoon, tenants in the apartments at 17 Eighth St. in Cloquet were stunned when Minnesota Power workers turned off the electricity to their building.

Amy Sparrow has lived in the building -- formerly the Dugout bar -- for six years. She said utilities (gas, electricity, water and garbage) are included as part of the rent, and there is just one electric meter for the entire building. She also said Minnesota Power has put disconnect notices on apartment doors in the building at least once a season for the past several years, but the power had never actually been disconnected before. Sparrow said her landlord, Roger Bruhn, is responsible for the utilities and now lives in Oklahoma.

"This shouldn't have happened," Sparrow said, adding that she thought it was illegal for the power company to turn off the electricity during the winter.

Not true, said Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power's communications manager. Utilities are allowed to disconnect service when a bill is not paid if the customer has not contacted the utility to set up a payment plan, she said.

And the customer in this case is the landlord, not the tenants.

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"If the tenants had individual bills, they certainly are provided Cold Weather Rule protection if they contact the utility," Rutledge said, referring to the state law designed to protect residential customers from disconnection of service between Oct. 15 and April 15. "That rule is designed to protect folks who may be struggling to pay their bills, but they need to call the utility and set up a payment plan."

"It can't just be a case of 'I'm not going to open my bill from October through April,'" Rutledge added. "People have to work with us."

Rutledge said the electric bill for the building was several months past due, and that the company had repeatedly tried to contact Bruhn before turning off the power.

Although the furnace for the building is gas, the thermostat is electric, Sparrow said, so turning off the electricity effectively turned of the heat.

In the end, the occupants of the 12 apartments in the building were only without power for a few hours. Minnesota Power workers turned the electricity back on at 4:25 p.m. Wednesday because the company

"wasn't comfortable leaving the tenants without heat for the evening," Rutledge said. That decision was greeted with relief by Stephanie Misquadace's 4- and 6-year-old sons.

"When the kids came home from school it was dark in here and it scared them," Misquadace said.

About five minutes after the utility reconnected the power, Rutledge said, the landlord contacted Minnesota Power customer service and the two parties were able to work out a payment option.

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"Obviously, we work hard with our customers, provide them with notices, let them know what could happen and explain what their options are," Rutledge said. "If they don't take advantage of those options, they're subject to a disconnect and that's what happened yesterday.

"Unfortunately, the tenants got caught in the middle," she said.

Minnesota Power recorded 74 disconnections in December for failing to pay their electric bills or working out a payment plan with the company, Rutledge said. Of those, 37 were reconnected that same month, while another four were reconnected in January.

Bruhn, who's owned the building since 2005, told the News Tribune on Thursday that missing the payment was his fault.

"It was just a legitimate mistake and I take full responsibility for it," he said. "Frankly, I had been traveling, but it was my mistake; it's my responsibility to take care of that stuff."

He said it's the only time it's happened since he bought the building.

News Tribune reporter Lisa Baumann contributed to this story.

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Letter to apartment tenants
These failure-to-pay notices from Minnesota Power appeared on the doorknobs of tenants of the apartment complex at 17 Eighth St. in Cloquet. On Wednesday, the power was shut off. (Jana Peterson / jpeterson@pinejournal.com)

Related Topics: CLOQUETMINNESOTA POWER
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