Every month, sometimes two or three times a month, Michelle Hill strolls over to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s headquarters on Lexington Street and hands a window teller $5 or $10 and asks that it be credited to her utility bill.
Every little bit helps, said Hill, who for years has been going there to pay her bill, as did her parents and grandparents.
"After I pay my bill, I usually buy some peanuts at the Peanut Shoppe and go shopping across the street," said Hill, a 24-year-old sales associate. "If you come here during the first two weeks of the month, you can see how many other people come here to do the same thing. It's practically a ritual."
On July 1, that ritual will end when BGE closes its last two bill-payment centers - the Lexington site and one at Eastpoint Mall- and contracts the business out to a check-cashing company. Some consumer advocates, customers and business leaders have criticized the utility's decision
Critics also object to a $1 that ACE Cash Express Inc. will charge BGE's customers at all but two of its 18 outlets to process each transaction, calling the fee a hardship for low- and fixed-income customers.
The People's Counsel, the state advocate for residential customers in utility issues, has urged the Maryland Public Service Commission to block the closings. A community group held a protest rally in front of the BGE building two weekends ago. And state Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore City and Baltimore County Democrat, denounced the decision.
PSC Executive Director Gregory V. Carmean said the commission is reviewing the case and is scheduled to take it up at a meeting tomorrow. The PSC could issue a decision by Thursday.
West-side business leaders and Lexington Market have asked the PSC to forbid the closings, saying they would harm local businesses.
"People of all colors and all backgrounds use the payment center downtown," said Alvin J. Levi, owner of Howard Street Jewelers and president of the 400-member Market Center Merchants Association.
"People use mass transit into town to get there. Senior citizens use the payment center. People who work around here use it. People running errands here use it. It's easy and convenient. They close that center and the foot traffic around here decreases. We retailers know we're going to feel it in our cash registers."
BGE "categorically denies that" it is leaving its customers stranded, spokesman Charles B. Welsh said.
The ACE check-cashing company, with headquarters in Irving, Texas, has 18 outlets in the Baltimore area, including two near the BGE centers that are closing. The two ACE sites, on Baltimore Street and Eastern Boulevard, will waive the $1 fee for BGE customers, Welsh said.
In a letter to the PSC, the utility said it has improved services at ACE so that customer payments are processed promptly. In case of service termination or shutoff notices, customers can also get their service restored that same day by making their payment at any ACE location before 3 p.m.
"We want to get out of the cash-handling business," Welsh said. "That's the main driver behind this. Our primary purpose is delivering gas and electricity. Cash-handling is not part of our core competency.
"We certainly don't think it's a reduction in service to our customers," he said. "We think the arrangement with ACE will result in more hours and greater opportunities to make payments."
Most of BGE's 1.8 million customers mail their payments, but the company estimates that about 4 percent, or 50,000 customers, visit the two bill payment centers monthly.
It's unclear how long customers have been paying their bills at the BGE building, but several elderly customers said they used to accompany their parents to the teller windows when they were children.
"I'm 66. All my life, I've been coming here," said Rebecca Tarpley of Catonsville, who still goes downtown to pay her utility bills. "My parents came down here."
BGE has been systematically closing its teller windows since 1994, including 11 in the past eight years. The last one to close was at Mondawmin Mall in 2000.
Although BGE said in its letter to the PSC that the decision is based on "cost-effective improvements" that would keep rates low, Welsh did not have figures on how much the company will save. He acknowledged that the savings from closing the last two centers are "not substantial."
"What the [Office of People's Counsel] is questioning is whether the closings are in reality improvements in customer service," said Deputy People's Counsel Sandra M. Guthorn.
"Four percent doesn't get across 50,000 people who will be affected by this. A lot of the customers who use the centers are older. Changing their routine is very burdensome and inconvenient to them. This is really going to have an effect on these people and their way of life. BGE is supposed to be a public-service company."