CHARLES TOWN – Despite formal requests from area legislators and Jefferson County commissioners for a sweeping general investigation, the state’s Public Service Commission says it will continue to address Potomac Edison customers’ billing complaints on a case-by-case informal basis.
[cleeng_content id="580685896" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]The PSC has not ruled out a larger general investigation of the utility’s billing practices, however.
The Public Service Commission came under heavy criticism at a meeting on May 22, when scores of ratepayers related stories of electric bills that were completely unpredictable. After several months of estimated bills, they said, they would suddenly face a massive “shock bill” that was sometimes more than 10 times higher than their bills in previous months.
While the PSC had been invited to send its representative Susan Small to the meeting, she sent a letter in her stead.
“If we were in Putnam County, it might be a little different,” Delegate Stephen Skinner said after the meeting. “I still have hope that the PSC is going to open an investigation. But I am very disappointed that they haven’t been more engaged here on the issue because it is real and it is palpable. And just because we are 330 miles away doesn’t mean that we don’t have a say.”
Small said she had not understood her presence had been so greatly desired at the meeting.
“The invitation I got was a form email,” she said. “I was invited to attend and told I would be given three minutes to address billing issues. I tried to put the situation at the time as I understood it in the letter. I sent it a week in advance of the meeting. No one contacted me to encourage me to attend the meeting.”
She said that she was shocked when she heard how large the meeting had been.
“I thought I had answered sufficiently,” she said. “I was quite dismayed to learn that people were dissatisfied with the response.”
At last week’s meeting organizers placed an empty table in the middle of the stage with placards bearing the names “PSC” and “Potomac Edison” stood for both the utility and the Public Service Commission.
Skinner, who was the first of the legislators to call for a formal investigation, said that he found the absence of a Potomac Edison representative far more outrageous.
“I think it is a total joke,” Skinner said after the meeting. “Potomac Edison was able to send somebody to today’s Chamber of Commerce lunch to sit there, and they couldn’t make it out here tonight? At the Berkeley County Chamber lunch last month, they sent seven people to sit there and have lunch with the legislators. They can’t send one person here? Give me a break.
“The more I hear, the worse it gets. It is shocking. It is appalling. I can’t believe that, in this day and age, a regulated utility is treating its customers the way that Potomac Edison is treating these folks,” Skinner said.
“They are making excuses for their inability to do what they promised they would do that are the same excuses they used in Maryland,” Skinner said. “When you go back and look at this letter they sent to the PSC in Maryland, they blamed the weather, they blamed the storm. And then, when they come to West Virginia, they just change the name of the storm.”
But Sen. Herb Snyder strongly criticized the PSC for failing to send a representative.
He said radical reforms are necessary for the commission.
“I firmly believe that the Public Service Commission should be elected,” Snyder said, adding he is also pushing for the Legislature to investigate electrical companies’ billing practices.
“I still have a formal request to [Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson] to formally study in my committee, through the summer and the fall, the billing practices of electric companies,” he said. “It would entail find out what caused this with Potomac Edison. Is it a lack of employees? Is it a bad computer system?”
Snyder said he had been in subsequent communication with PSC officials since last week’s gathering.
“They have been led to believe by Potomac Edison that they have corrected this and it should be addressed some time in late April. In the next billing, this should be corrected,” he said.
“Now, we will just have to wait and see.”
Snyder encouraged ratepayers who receive “shock bills” to first call Potomac Edison and then to file an informal complaint with the PSC.
“If people get these bills or have them now, call the power company. If they don’t get any satisfaction in working out a payment plan, call the Public Service Commission,” Snyder said.
“Having your electricity shut off because of this should not be an option,” he said.
Small said the informal investigation system can quickly resolve individual complaints, while formal investigations are more cumbersome, resembling court proceedings.
“In cases where people received multiple bills that were estimates that were much lower than their actual usage and then, all of a sudden, they get socked with a whopper of a bill, we have gone in and asked FirstEnergy to work out a deferred payment plan. I think that in all cases we have been successful with that,” Small said. “We get about 10,000 requests for assistance each year. We are able to resolve about 98 percent of those on the informal level before it turns into a formal investigation. In that case everyone has to lawyer up.”
“We are addressing individual complaints. When you have someone who has received a bill that they are not able to pay, the most efficient thing is to address it individually,” she said.[/cleeng_content]