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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Outrage over bill crosses a line

CdA man taken into custody for comments to Avista

A Coeur d’Alene man who owns a historic bed and breakfast was taken into custody by police Wednesday after threatening Avista Corp. employees over the phone when a serviceman delivered a power shut-off notice.

It’s an extreme example but by no means unique, an Avista spokesman said: So many similar incidents have occurred in the past month that the Spokane utility is considering additional security measures for its service people in the field.

The serviceman showed up around 11 a.m. at the Roosevelt Inn bed and breakfast, said Coeur d’Alene police Sgt. Christie Wood. John and Tina Hough have owned the business for about 11 years, Tina Hough said. The power shut-off notice listed unpaid bills totaling $3,132.14.

John Hough was alone in the inn when the serviceman showed up, his wife said. Receiving the notice “just set him off,” she said, because the couple has been behind on bills and were pinning hopes on the lucrative summer tourism season. Other creditors have been patient with them as they worked to catch up, she said.

“We’ve been struggling to get through here,” Tina Hough said.

John Hough called Avista’s customer-service center and police said he made threatening statements that included reference to a gun. When he overheard those statements, the Avista serviceman followed his training and called police, said company spokesman Hugh Imhof.

“Our serviceman felt threatened because of comments he overheard being made by this gentleman as he called our contact center,” Imhof said. “As trained, he removed himself from the situation and called the police.”

The Avista serviceman, who declined to give his name, said after the incident that he felt “shaken” and “in shock.”

Imhof said so many Avista field workers have been threatened recently that the company has formed a committee to consider additional security precautions.

“In the last month, we’ve had three or four incidents where people have verbally threatened us or, in one case, shown a gun,” Imhof said. “They’re looking at this now from an internal standpoint of what can we do. It’s definitely a concern.”

Imhof speculated the rising anger is connected to economic struggles, a theory that definitely applies in Hough’s case, his wife said.

Wood, of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department, said the first officer to arrive Wednesday knew Hough and persuaded him to come downstairs and talk. Police confiscated an unloaded rifle from the upstairs living quarters. Tina Hough said her husband, a decorated Navy veteran and former sheriff’s deputy, never kept the gun loaded.

Wood said police took Hough into protective custody, which occurs when subjects endanger themselves or others. He was taken to Kootenai Medical Center for evaluation. Wood said she could not comment further because Hough was not arrested and no crime had been committed. Police did not release Hough’s name, identifying him only as a 52-year-old man, but his wife confirmed his identity.

Imhof said the company tries to work with customers behind on their bills, especially businesses. He said he’s prohibited by law from discussing individual cases but said helping customers with bills is handled on a case-by-case basis and depends on payment history.

“We have people who it’s basically their job to help people get their bills paid,” Imhof said.

On Wednesday morning, the power was still on at the bed and breakfast, but Tina Hough said she didn’t know how long that would last. The Roosevelt Inn is the city’s oldest remaining former schoolhouse and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s just north of downtown Coeur d’Alene, at 105 E. Wallace Ave.

The big, old building is expensive to heat in the winter, Tina Hough said. The couple had done what they could to pinch pennies, sometimes turning off power to an entire floor if it was unused. Heating bills in winter sometimes ran as high as $2,000 a month, she said. Combined with the difficult economy, she said, monthly revenues were 30 to 60 percent off last year.

“Here we are on the verge of summertime,” Tina Hough said. “They couldn’t wait three more weeks? There’s only so much you can do until you break the back of people. People get upset.”