PSC speeds examination of BGE's credit policy

Improper shut-offs to the poor claimed

September 18, 2001|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In a rush to beat the start of the winter heating season, state regulators set an accelerated schedule yesterday to begin examining Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s credit and collection policies amid claims that the utility improperly sped up service shut-offs last winter and denied help to low-income customers.

BGE has the right to file a motion to dismiss the case by Sept. 27. But Joel M. Bright, a Maryland Public Service Commission hearing examiner, said an expedited resolution of the case - with a target of Nov. 1 - is important in light of winter's impending arrival and the belief that thousands of low-income customers could lose service as they encounter payment problems.

The Office of the People's Counsel requested the PSC investigation in an Aug. 6 petition after the utility cut off service to more than 22,700 residential customers - including about 2,000 low-income customers who qualified for state energy assistance - from April to June.

The People's Counsel objected yesterday to the truncated schedule, saying it wouldn't provide enough time to conduct data requests, depositions, public hearings and other proceedings to properly investigate the case.

BGE attorneys, who labeled the People's Counsel petition a "fishing expedition," were in favor of the fast-track proceedings. The utility's lawyers also denied again yesterday that BGE discriminated against or was unreasonable about helping low-income customers establish alternative payment plans to avoid cutoffs.

"The People's Counsel should be given the opportunity to engage in discovery starting now," Bright said. "They should obtain any information they want. But clearly, the commission wants an expedited proceeding ... with a ruling to occur or motion to dismiss prior to the heating season, which will begin Nov. 1.

"I would interpret that to mean that we need to see if there are any people who have been terminated, or improperly terminated, we need to look at that and resolve it before the next heating season."

Despite BGE objections, Bright ruled that all parties involved in the case - including the Public Justice Center, which is representing the All People's Congress, a nonprofit group concerned about rising utility bills for low-income customers - can begin requesting data immediately.

The threat of utility service shut-offs has increased sharply since March 31, when a winter moratorium on low-income service terminations ended. Consumers racked up high utility bills last winter when fuel prices more than doubled and computer problems delayed state energy assistance to poor families. The PSC is working to revise state regulations on service cutoffs for low-income residents in the coming months.

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