ROCK FALLS — A Rock Falls man was hospitalized Thursday with carbon monoxide poisoning after a generator he was using to provide heat – because his electricity was cut off – tripped his carbon monoxide alarm, he said.
His electricity was cut off for nonpayment, and not for the first time.
Kerry McGrady, 56, is on disability, doesn’t work, doesn’t drive and acknowledges he often doesn’t pay his bills on time.
The latter, according to officials, is why the Rock Falls Electric Department shut off his power and water Jan. 13. McGrady said he showed up at the customer service office with cash in hand to pay his $214 back bill. At that point, he already was too late to keep his power from getting shut off.
McGrady’s power was nearly cut off eight years ago. That winter, there was the threat of him losing his power for nonpayment, but he was able to work things out with the city.
This year, however, McGrady says when the staff at the customer service office refused to take his payment last week, he spent the money staying at a local motel for four nights. When the money for the motel ran out, he had nowhere to go but back to his home, where a friend loaned him the generator so he could keep warm in a spate of overnight subzero temperatures.
Thursday night, McGrady was having trouble breathing, fell asleep briefly and woke to the sound of his carbon monoxide sensor blaring, he said. He vomited, realized his breathing was even worse, and called 911, he said.
McGrady was taken to CGH Medical Center in Sterling, where he was diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning, his primary diagnosis, and COVID-19, a CGH spokeswoman said Friday.
He’s expected to be hospitalized for a few days.
One may think, well, wait, you can’t cut off a person’s electricity between December and April, but they would be wrong.
State law allows electricity to be shut off in some circumstances. However, as a municipal electric department, Rock Falls is not regulated by the state. The City Council sets the laws and procedures governing its utilities. And in the case of McGrady, it followed the rules, officials said.
State regulations say that, in general, a customer’s power cannot be terminated from Dec. 1 through March 31 on a day when the temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or is expected to be within the next 24 hours.
In Rock Falls, that rule applies at 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
McGrady, who had received at least four notices in 2020 that he was behind in his bill, and had, in his history with the city, already been shut off twice, arrived at the office to pay his $214 bill at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
However, City Administrator Robbin Blackert said McGrady had been told he must be there by 5 p.m. the day before, but he didn’t show up, so the shut-off order was processed.
Ten minutes before McGrady arrived on his bike to the payment window, the electric truck and the water truck already had been sent to do shut-offs. His home was on the list.
Because the shut-off orders were in place, McGrady now owed not only the $214, but also a $50 utility fee to restore the utilities and a $500 security deposit because of the earlier shut-offs. Both fees are required per city ordinance.
Under city policy, he could split the security deposit in half, and pay $250 in February, but because of the addition of the security deposit, he did not have enough money that morning to pay his bill, and the billing department would not take a partial payment.
The city does not call its trucks back once they have been sent out.
Alderman Bill Wangelin has taken calls and texts from McGrady in the past week and said he finds the whole situation frustrating.
“We’ve bent over backwards for him for years,” Wangelin said. ”We don’t want to shut off anybody’s lights or water. It’s 100% his fault.”
McGrady was told to come plead his case at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, which he was warned would be short, but he arrived late, just as the meeting was ending, and “started using bad language,” Wangelin said.
Winter cutoffs are not unusual, said Bill Simon, director of the Electric Department. Simon said he’s well aware of McGrady’s situation and the city’s law governing shut-offs, which he says his department follows.
“If the alderman disagree with it, they need to get it changed or at least bring it up and talk about it,” Simon said.
Alderwoman Jessica Deevers said she plans to do just that.
Deevers is critical of the ordinance and policies that allow the city to leave a person in a potentially life-threatening situation, especially when he had the money to pay his bill.
“It’s not right,” she said Friday, adding that she has been talking with McGrady daily and plans to discuss the ordinance with her fellow members on the city utility committee, which OKs cutoffs and hears utility disputes.
She would like to see Diane Shepherd, supervisor of the customer service office, have the authority and flexibility to work around the ordinance when the situation warrants it.
McGrady has another chance to make his case. The utility committee meets at 8:15 a.m. Monday and every fourth Monday of the month in the City Council Chambers.
Meanwhile, a high of 35 degrees is forecast for Monday, with temperatures below the freezing mark, ranging from 14 degrees to 29 degrees, Tuesday, with nighttime temps in the single digits and below zero.
For information, go to https://rockfalls61071.net, click on “Government,” and “City Ordinances,” to read the city’s Billing and Electric ordinances.