PSC will investigate on a case-by-case basis
BRYAN CLARK Spirit Staff
CHARLES TOWN — Public Service Commission officials say they are continuing to investigate individual claims by ratepayers who are questioning recent billing practices by Potomac Edison, but the commission is not prepared to launch a general investigation into Potomac Edison’s billing practices at the current time.
“Right now, the commission is continuing to work with Potomac Edison on the issue,” said PSC Public Information Specialist Martina Johnson Thursday. “Even though a general investigation has not been initiated, the Public Service Commission continues to work with Potomac Edison and First Energy on the individual complaints.”
The PSC could choose to launch a general investigation at a later date, she noted.
Johnson noted that the number of informal complaints in the first four months of 2013 had more than tripled over the same period in 2012. 102 such complaints have been filed so far this year compared with only 33 during the same period last year.
While First Energy’s tariff requires them to read customers’ meters once every two weeks, Johnson noted, reasonable exceptions were allowed. She said that the June derecho, for example, had pulled many meter readers off of their routes in order to assist with power restoration efforts, and this is seen as a reasonable exception.
She said that new complaints that come in will continue to be investigated.
“Every complaint is being looked at,” she emphasized.
It was June’s derecho as well as other damaging storms last year, claims Potomac Edison, that resulted in fluctuating electric bills for ratepayers in recent months.
But Potomac Edison customers aren’t buying it.
A group of about 50 area residents gathered Friday at Fisherman’s Hall for a meeting organized by the Jefferson County NAACP to complain about their bills that many said were based not on actual meter readings, but estimates.
Stop PATH activist Patience Wait said she had been billed based on estimates for nine of the last 12 months, a violation of rules with the state’s Public Service Commission.
“It is in their tariff with the Public Service Commission, who sets their rates, that they are required by law to read the meter every two months,” Wait said. “They are not doing it.”
Wait noted that, since the salaries of meter readers were priced in to electricity rates, First Energy – the parent company of Potomac Edison – was effectively charging for services it was not providing.
Jonathan Wertman, a Charles Town resident, said his bills had undergone sudden, erratic increases.
“The last two bills I received from Potomac Edison were in the range of $80 per month. My most recent one was $250,” said Wertman, who pointed out that he uses oil, not electric heat. “There is obviously concern that, once summer comes around and I am using central air conditioning, that the bill would be closer to $600 a month.”
Some residents noted that many residents are on fixed incomes, forcing them to have to choose between paying the electric bill or some other expense.
To date, 102 complaints have been filed with the PSC, 47 from Berkeley County, 36 from Jefferson County, and five each from Morgan and Hampshire counties. Five complaints were also filed from Mineral County, while two were filed from both Grant and Hardy counties.
In an interview, Potomac Edison spokesman Todd Meyers said that the area was experiencing billing irregularities due to extreme weather events last summer and the merger of Allegheny Power and First Energy.
“We do make every effort to read our customers meters on a bi-monthly schedule,” Meyers said, but, he added, meter readers are brought away from their regular duties when weather events like the derecho and Superstorm Sandy cause widespread outages.
“Once you miss, you can’t go back the next day and do those routes because there is a whole new set of routes that have to be done that day,” Meyers said.
He said the “renumbering” process initiated after the merger – in which the routes of meter readers were redesigned – caused more estimated bills since many meter readers left for other jobs, causing a shortage of readers.
“You begin to run into problems when you have several estimates in a row,” Meyers said, because the error in each estimate can be compounded in the following estimate. This, he said, can either lead to the customer being substantially overcharged during the period of estimated readings or to receive a much larger-than-normal bill once an actual reading occurs.
He also said the renumbering process changes due date for many electric bills, which could mean that customers could have a bill come due sooner than they are used to, or they could be billed for a longer period of time, leading to a larger than normal bill.
Meyers said that the total amount billed will not be higher than if meter reading had been accomplished according to the normal bi-monthly schedule.
“It is important for everyone to note that … if you pay too much, then you get a credit, and you are made whole that way,” Meyers said. “If you have underpaid, then you make that up on a future bill. But, at the end of the day, the customer is only charged for the amount that is used.”
Meyers promised that if a large bill created hardships that alternative payment plans would be made available, including interest-free scheduled repayment plans. He said all meter reader positions had been successfully filled by the firm, and that ratepayers can expect regular bi-monthly readings to take place now.
Meyers encouraged dissatisfied customers to seek out customer support by calling 1-800-686-0011.
Informal complaints can be lodged with the Public Service Commission at the PSC’s website.