A decision by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to close two public payment centers has raised the ire of consumer advocates, who say the move will burden low-income customers who might not have telephones or checking accounts.
BGE plans to close the payment centers - one at its Lexington Street headquarters and another in Eastpoint Mall - by July 1, citing security concerns. A private company has been hired to collect payments at other locations.
"We decided that handling large sums of cash is a business that other businesses do better than we do," said BGE spokesman Charles B. Welsh. "We also had concerns about unlimited access to the building which happens to be BGE's headquarters."
But the state's consumer advocacy agency is calling on regulators to postpone the closings, and to hold hearings to determine whether the change is in the public interest. Most of the new private payment centers will charge a $1 fee to accept BGE payments, and none of them will be staffed with BGE employees who can answer questions about service and billing.
"We believe that the closure of the BGE public payment locations will create a serious degradation in customer service and is not in the public interest," the Maryland People's Counsel wrote in a letter to the state Public Service Commission, which regulates BGE. "Many customers, especially those without checking accounts, have become accustomed to the services provided by these two BGE locations."
BGE plans to allow ACE Cash Express Inc., a national chain that offers check cashing, money orders and other financial services, to collect BGE payments at local branches. ACE will charge $1 for the service, except at two locations closest to the former BGE payment centers.
The People's Counsel and another consumer advocacy group, the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, questioned the use of ACE for bill collection because of a history of complaints regarding the company. ACE has been accused in Maryland and other states of predatory lending practices.
"We are concerned that BGE customers may be `steered' to high interest loans," the People's Counsel wrote.
Welsh disputed the suggestion that the change will reduce the level of customer service. He said service center employees are not authorized to handle payment disputes now, and customers with payment problems must continue to call BGE directly to work out special payment plans.
Sun staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.