CHARLES TOWN – The Public Service Commission has ordered FirstEnergy, and its subsidiaries Potomac Edison and Mon Power, to submit regular reports on customer complaints, meter reader staffing levels so that the commission can discover whether inconsistent billing issues have been resolved.
[cleeng_content id="647598178" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]The case stems from widely reported problems with customers who had received badly estimated bills for several months in a row and suddenly received bills several times larger than their average monthly bill.
State regulations require electric utilities to bill based on actual meter readings at least every other month, unless unforeseen circumstances intervene.
FirstEnergy had asked that the case be dismissed at the beginning of the month. Last week, the PSC denied the utility’s request.
“The Commission does not find the current state of FirstEnergy customer service and billing practices to be satisfactory nor does it believe that this proceeding should be dismissed,” the commission said in its ruling. “FirstEnergy acknowledged some level of billing and customer service problems, but the information presented to the Commission points out reason for concern about the magnitude of the problems.”
FirstEnergy has said that the billing issues stem largely from last year’s derecho and Hurricane Sandy, both of which required meter readers to respond to widespread power outages.
But the PSC said these issues alone did not fully explain the problems.
“Beyond the adverse weather conditions last year, the July 1, 2013 filing indicates that choices made by FirstEnergy may have contributed to the circumstances underlying its billing and customer service problems,” the PSC wrote. “The large number of billing process changes implemented on an aggressive schedule may have contributed to inaccurate and frequent estimated billing.”
FirstEnergy had explained in a filing that it was seeking to implement a more efficient meter reading process after the merger that saw the acquisition of Potomac Edison.
“Prior to the merger, meter readers at Mon Power and Potomac Edison performed the tasks of not only reading meters but also field collections and service order work (disconnect/reconnect),” the company wrote. “Both Companies utilized seasonal employees to assist with these three functions, and, as a result of the merger, the Mon Power and Potomac Edison meter reading employees now only read meters while other employees perform the tasks of collections and service order work. This increased specialization results in meter reading efficiencies.”
FirstEnergy had argued that the billing inconsistencies had largely been resolved after the company recovered from last year’s storms, but the PSC said that data submitted in response to discovery requests suggested problems were still ongoing.
“FirstEnergy acknowledged the existence of billing and customer service problem but characterized the current problems as short-term and resolved,” the Commission wrote. “The data FirstEnergy filed, however, demonstrated that in the last month it reported (May 2013), 5.3 percent of its customers received two consecutive estimated bills and a further 2.2 percent of customers received three consecutive estimated bills.”
The Commission further noted that it is still receiving formal and informal complaints about the company’s billing practices and said the company has not been sufficiently proactive in resolving billing issues.
“Problems arising from the process changes were apparently compounded by the fact that in nearly half of those cases, many customers calling the customer service center were required to place multiple calls to resolve billing problems,” it said.
The PSC ordered FirstEnergy to continue to begin regularly reporting customer contact center statistics, the percentage of customers with two or more consecutive estimates, the number of meter reader positions and employees, the status of the meter re-numbering project, enhancements to the company’s method of estimating bills, the percentage of meters reread, the number and types of complaints along with the percentage resolved on first call and the number of customers on deferred payment plans.
Patience Wait, an activist with the Coalition for Reliable Power which, along with the NAACP, has organized citizens to report billing problems, says she feels the PSC’s ruling is a step in the right direction. She hopes the PSC will take further action to address the harm suffered by customers who received unexpected outsized bills.
“There are people who have been actually harmed by the way FirstEnergy has done this,” Wait said. “There was nothing in there to indicate any measures other than reporting data. There is nothing to make them do anything differently.”
Wait says many ratepayers suffered harm from the billing practices.
“There are people whose electricity got turned off because they couldn’t find a way to pay a $1,000 bill,” Wait said. “That caused a lot of harm, because then they have to pay to get it reconnected again.”
“There are other people who paid their electric bills and had to let other bills go unpaid because, particularly as we came up on the heat, people worry about having air conditioning,” she said. “So they may have other creditors who are hitting them with penalties.
“There will be citizens who will be asking for some kind of recompense, that they be made whole in some way,” she said.
Wait said that, based on her conversations with ratepayers, some of the billing problems are still ongoing.
“We’re still getting complaints,” she said. “We’re getting complaints about an excessive number estimates. We’re getting complaints about rudeness from the folks at the call center.”[/cleeng_content]