Utility bills unpaid, man, 93, freezes to death in own home
BAY CITY, Mich. – When neighbors went inside Marvin Schur’s house, the windows were frosted over, icicles hung from a faucet, and the 93-year-old World War II veteran lay dead on the bedroom floor in a winter jacket over four layers of clothing.
He froze to death, days after the electric company installed a power-limiting device because of more than $1,000 in unpaid bills.
The man’s death two weeks ago has led to outrage, soul-searching and a resolve never to let something like this happen again.
“There’s got to be a way, in today’s computer age, they can find out if someone’s over a certain age,” said Chad Sepos, 37, a copy machine installer who lives a block away in this Lake Huron city of 34,000 people, about 90 miles from Detroit. “It’s just sad.”
One of the saddest things was that Schur appeared to have plenty of money. A neighbor who entered the home reported seeing cash clipped to a pile of bills on the kitchen table. Schur’s nephew suggested the old man’s mind may have been slipping.
Schur, or “Mutts,” was a retired foundry worker who lived alone, his wife having died a couple of years ago. The couple had no children. He could often be seen through the big front window of his comfortably furnished home of 50 or 60 years, watching TV or keeping an eye on his neighborhood.
On Jan. 13, a worker with the city-owned utility installed a “limiter” on Schur’s electric meter after four months of unpaid bills. The device restricts power and blows like a fuse if usage rises past a set level. Electricity is not restored until the device is flipped back on by the homeowner, who must walk outside to the meter.
Bay City Electric Light & Power did not contact Schur in person to notify him and explain how the device works, instead following its usual policy of leaving a note on the door. But neighbors said Schur rarely left the house in the cold.
At some point, the device tripped and was not reset, authorities said. Schur’s home was heated by a gas furnace, but some gas furnaces do not work properly if the power is out.
Neighbors discovered Schur’s body on Jan. 17. The outside temperature ranged from a high of 12 degrees to a low of minus 9 on Jan. 15, the day he is believed to have died. A heating pad was on his favorite armchair by the window. The oven door was open, perhaps to provide heat.
City officials are reviewing their procedures and in the meantime have suspended shutoffs and removed all limiters from homes after using the devices for 18 years.
The medical examiner is looking into whether Schur suffered from dementia, particularly after police found enough cash in the home to cover his bills. His nephew William Walworth said Schur told him two years ago he had $600,000 in savings.
“I think the utility’s policies are horrible and insane,” said Walworth, 67. “For 50 years he paid the bill on a regular basis and never had problems. If people would know who their customers are and take concern for their customers, maybe they’d go knock on the door and see if everything is OK.”
Schur’s death has prompted Michigan lawmakers to start writing legislation that could ban the use of limiters by municipal utilities.
“The concern was particularly with elderly customers; they can be frail or confused,” Public Service Commission spokeswoman Judy Palnau said. “Anything that can require some sort of mechanical intervention can be overwhelming.”
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