Utility bill leeway sought

PSC is asked to require alternative payment plans

March 05, 2009|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,liz.kay@baltsun.com

Consumer advocates recommended yesterday that the Maryland Public Service Commission instruct utilities to negotiate alternative payment plans with customers who have complained about unusually high bills or those who are already behind in payments.

Paula Carmody of the Office of the People's Counsel, which represents residential consumers, said alternative payment plans would be better than a moratorium on service terminations under which people would continue to accrue debt.

Under current regulations, utilities may negotiate alternative plans with ratepayers who are not low-income, but are not required to do so.

Like those for low-income customers, the plans should take hardship and ability to pay into account, Carmody said.

Some plans spread payments over too short a period of time, such as three or six months, so they are "designed or built to fail," said Odogwu Linton, director of the commission's external relations office.

Carmody's comments were made during a PSC hearing in downtown Baltimore to discuss, among other things, residents' complaints about higher power bills this heating season.

PSC members have received more than 3,300 complaints from consumers this season - double the number from a year ago.

Commissioners held the first hearing last week about the matter and finished taking testimony yesterday. They will issue an order later.

"A moratorium is just pushing into the future handling of a problem that exists today," Carmody said. "Whether it's May or June or July, that bill may have been paid partially, it may not have been paid at all."

Commissioners challenged her contention. During winter months, utilities must overcome additional hurdles to cut off service to customers, but those hurdles disappear March 31.

"So 27 days from now, when your clients start getting terminated, you're going to be OK with that?" asked PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian. "I was hoping to hear constructive, aggressive solutions we could use to help the ratepayers."

Commissioner Susanne Brogan suggested that both a moratorium and payment plans could be an option.

Baltimore City Solicitor Matthew Nayden said alternative payment plans could require a down payment from customers and be included as an option when a utility sends a termination notice.

Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., which is the state's largest utility, said in an e-mail that alternative payment plans have been offered to customers who have had trouble playing their bills.

"If a customer has broken previous payment agreements it might be more challenging, but we would still try to work with the customer," Foy wrote.

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