Tactics shifted in probe of BGE

People's Counsel asks Md. regulators to alter utility shut-off rules

November 22, 2001|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Nixing plans to investigate Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s payment and termination practices, the Maryland People's Counsel asked regulators yesterday to launch a formal proceeding to revise consumer protection regulations that govern utility service shut-offs to residential customers.

In the petition, the Office of the People's Counsel requested that the Public Service Commission begin rule-making proceedings to review regulations governing how utilities handle applications, disputes and terminations of residential gas and electric service.

The move grew out of allegations last winter that BGE unfairly cut off service to thousands of residential customers who didn't pay their bills on time. People's Counsel had originally requested an investigation into BGE's policies, but the PSC severely limited the examination to just 13 cases.

"We are closing one door and opening another," People's Counsel Michael J. Travieso, the consumers' advocate on utility issues, said in a prepared statement. "The hearing examiner's decision last month to limit the scope of the BGE investigation caused us to re-evaluate our case. We could no longer achieve the results we were seeking.

"We believe Maryland residents, including BGE customers, will benefit significantly from a PSC proceeding that results in enhancements to consumer protection rules for all utility customers."

Revising those outdated regulations will not be easy. A comprehensive review of utility customer protections has not taken place in 13 years. Informal talks continuing between state regulators and utility companies have yet to work out differences on a number of key issues.

State regulators and the People's Counsel want to require utilities to offer automatic payment plans to customers having trouble paying their bills; restrict service shut-offs when temperatures fall below 32 degrees for a 48-hour period; waive interest payments on low-income customer bills; and waive credit rules for customers who demonstrate "financial hardship."

Utilities, in a joint statement to the Public Service Commission last month, said adopting such proposals is "tantamount to a winter moratorium" and would be an "unlawful delegation of the commission's regulatory authority."

About 22,700 residential customers had their power cut off by BGE from April to June last year, the People's Counsel said. More than 2,000 of them were low-income residents who qualified for state and public assistance, which was delayed by computer glitches and did not arrive in time to pay bills.

In August, the People's Counsel filed a petition requesting an investigation into BGE and charged that the utility discriminated against low-income customers by not granting special payment plans. BGE immediately filed a request to dismiss the petition and accused the People's Counsel of unfairly singling out the company in the inquiry.

Last month, a PSC hearing examiner ruled that the number of customers whose service had been terminated and the number of individuals who had protested that rates were excessive did not mean that any violations or improprieties occurred at the utility.

Saying that the decision hurt its chances of winning a significant change in BGE policies, the People's Counsel decided to change strategy.

"We think that holding a full review of regulations is the appropriate forum for this issue," said Charles B. Welsh, a BGE spokesman.

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