After several complaints from local businesses and consumer advocates, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is proposing to keep its downtown bill payment center open for another year to give its customers time to adjust to the center's eventual closing.
In a letter filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission late Wednesday, BGE said the payment center at its West Lexington Street headquarters will remain in operation until July 1 next year but that an Eastpoint Mall payment site will close at the end of the month as scheduled.
BGE announced in April that its last two payment centers would close July 1 and that it would contract that business out to a check-cashing company.
The Office of the People's Counsel, the state's consumer advocate in utility matters, and other critics urged the PSC to block the closings, saying they would inconvenience elderly and low-income customers who frequently use the downtown center to pay bills, and hurt local businesses by decreasing pedestrian traffic.
Critics also objected to ACE Cash Express Inc.'s charging BGE customers $1 at all but two of its 18 outlets to process each transaction, calling the fee a hardship for low- and fixed-income customers.
"Basically, we have been listening to our customers, and we heard that some of them may need additional time before we close the payment centers," BGE spokeswoman Rose Kendig said yesterday. "We want to give our customers plenty of notice about changes to these payment centers and allow them to change their long-standing habits."
The PSC was expected to issue a ruling in the matter but has not done so. "The commission is reviewing the response," PSC spokeswoman Chrys Wilson said.
Customers will still be able to use the downtown payment center, but the hours for the teller windows, now 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays, will change to 9 a.m. to 3:30.
ACE has been collecting payments from BGE customers since May 1999 and will take over the entire walk-in payment business by July of next year, Kendig said. Two ACE sites, one on Baltimore Street and another on Eastern Boulevard near Eastpoint Mall, will waive the $1 fee for BGE customers.
"BGE hereby notes that it is altering its business plan to further assist customers with this transition," the BGE letter said. "The company is confident that this change will allow additional time to educate and assist `walk-in' payment customers with the transition."
The letter also requested that the PSC refrain from holding hearings on the issue and from intervening in any way because of the "propriety and legality of management's decision. ... BGE is properly making a lawful management decision to modify its business processes to improve customer service and control costs to keep rates low, in the same way as other regulated utilities in Maryland."
Deputy People's Counsel Sandra M. Guthorn noted yesterday that a People's Counsel request to hold investigations is pending before the commission.
"BGE's proposal falls short of what they need to do to serve their customers," Guthorn said. "We believe that BGE's plan to close the two public payment centers, whether they do it now or next year, is not in the public interest."