Rather than give up private info, couple give up Modesto Irrigation District discount

gstapley@modbee.comDecember 27, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

It’s time to take a stand, Timothy Dunaway has decided, even though his unusual protest is hurting his already thin wallet.

Rather than divulge more private information, the west Modesto man of meager means has given up an electricity discount offered to low-income users of life-sustaining medical equipment.

“I won’t give it to them,” Dunaway, 64, said of the Modesto Irrigation District’s demand for a peek at his Internal Revenue Service tax form, in addition to other verification the permanently disabled man and his ailing wife have dutifully provided over the years.

“It’s the principle,” Dunaway said. “It’s an invasion of my privacy.”

The Dunaways are among about 17,000 customers affected by the requirement for more documentation. The MID board approved the change to curb the possibility of fraud by people requesting discounts that aren’t deserved.

Like the Dunaways, about 2,000 customers receive Medical Life Support discounts. About 15,000 customers take advantage of another break for low-income people, called MID CARES, or Community Alternative Rates for Electric Service.

It’s OK to apply for both discounts, although fewer than half of those in the medical equipment program also request the other. But MID bookkeepers noticed that income amounts claimed by some customers applying for both were “vastly different” from one form to the other, district spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

Staff checked with other utilities and learned that many require applicants to sign a form allowing MID to verify income through the IRS, which sends a transcript of the applicant’s tax return. MID now requires the extra step for both discounts.

Williams said “a handful” of customers have expressed confusion or concern over the new mandate. Most go along, accepting the burden in exchange for a break that nearly 100,000 other power customers don’t get, she said. All are “reassured that this data remains secure and locked in MID files and isn't shared with any other agency,” she said.

A few are skeptical, aware that the federal government was secretly spying on people around the globe in the National Security Agency surveillance scandal. Last week’s revelation that thieves pilfered personal data from 40 million Target credit and debit cards hasn’t helped.

Dunaway has even less faith in MID, technically a “special district” that should have less power than regular government to intrude in people’s lives, he said. “My private information has nothing to do with this medical equipment,” he told MID board members in August. “I feel dishonored.”

Dunaway previously operated heavy machinery and drove trucks, but knee, shoulder and back injuries have kept him from working full time since 1996. To counter sleep apnea at night, he wears a CPAP mask, short for continuous positive airway pressure, enabling a machine to keep him ventilated.

His wife, Harriet, also 64, previously relied on another sort of breathing machine and now uses a nebulizer that delivers a medicated mist three times a day.

The Dunaways have provided forms signed by their doctors every two years since first applying for the medical equipment discount in 2006, according to documents shared with The Modesto Bee. Timothy Dunaway said the term “permanently disabled” should suggest that their condition will not improve.

“To me, it’s like calling the doctors damn liars,” Dunaway said. “MID is saying, ‘We don’t care who you are or what you are; if you don’t give us this extra information, you’re discontinued.’ 

“A lot of disabled people are hurting so much, they’ll agree to anything,” he added. “It takes too much effort for them to take the time and energy to fight for their rights. They’re just trying to survive.”

The medical equipment discount gives participants half off for the first 500 kilowatt hours used each month; most homes in this area use about 850 kilowatts, the district says. Families with monthly income of $5,525 or less are eligible.

The CARES discount reduces fixed monthly charges from $12.50 to $5 and reduces the rest of a bill 23 percent for the first 850 kilowatt hours. Income limits are figured on a sliding scale, at $2,017 per month for two people, $2,545 for three and so on.

The Dunaways receive a combined $1,383 per month in Social Security Disability Insurance and have a hard time understanding why families with four times their income are eligible for the same medical equipment discount.

Timothy Dunaway signed the form that would allow MID to get his tax return, but he did not like his reception at the district office and decided against submitting the paper. The district kicked him out of the discount program and his bill nearly doubled, he said.

“I refused to give it to them because it’s an invasion of our privacy,” he said. “They already have all the documentation I’ve given them every year since I signed up.”

Williams said the couple still could receive the discount if they would relent.

Timothy Dunaway took a stand, he said, in hopes of helping “other people being jacked around. It’s a personal thing to me.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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