The fire that killed 9-year-old Taylor McQueeney on Monday morning in downtown Lewiston was a tragic accident. In sobering hindsight, there were plenty of precautions that could have been taken, chief among them simply extinguishing the candle that sparked the blaze.
That's where the blame lies.
This hasn't silenced concerns about the relationship between landlords and tenants when it comes to electricity. The fire on River Street was the second in a week in Lewiston with the same sad M.O.: disconnected electricity, lit candles, ignorance or obliviousness.
Landlords complain that they're not notified when their tenants are shut off. This is somewhat true; customer records of utility companies are held close by privacy laws. Yet mechanisms in the law do exist to allow landlords to be told of disconnections, if they get their tenants' written consent.
Observers are seeing a spike in disconnections in local apartments, a trait that's being attributed to the recession. The two fires in Lewiston are observational proof that people are electing to go without power, rather than try to have it restored. This is a bad situation now, which will only grow worse.
And it's entirely preventable.
First off, the state has programs available to avoid electrical disconnections. The Maine Public Utilities Commission maintains a $7 million fund to help low-income utility customers with their bills; losing service should be the absolute last resort. For more on that program, call 1-800-452-4699.
Next, there are great inequities between landlords and tenants regarding disconnections. Voluntary terminations of electricity service are reported to landlords, for instance. Involuntary terminations, though, are not. This doesn't seem to make much sense.
Nor does this: If a landlord pays for electricity and faces a disconnection, their tenants must be notified and given the chance to put the service in their name. The opposite is true when tenants lose service, as landlords can literally be kept in the dark.
Yet there is nothing stopping landlords from requesting their tenants' consent to be notified if they're disconnected, have unpaid balances, or if hazards to service arise; in fact, we'd suggest landlords should insist on it, purely to protect their property from accidents or decline.
A lease or rental agreement has many binding clauses; empowering your landlord to know if you've had your power shut off seems smart to be one of them. (And legal, too.)
PUC officials say this is the first time in memory that questions have arisen about the landlord-tenant utility relationship, which is tragic, since it's taken the death of an innocent child to start asking them.
It's clear, though, that both landlords and tenants have power to remedy these situations. Nothing can bring back Taylor McQueeney, but officials, utility companies, landlords and tenants can ensure the conditions that led to her death are not repeated anytime soon.