Utility bill pay plan accord elusive

PSC work group divided on rules before shut-off

April 04, 2009|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,liz.kay@baltsun.com

A work group of utility company officials and consumer advocates has failed to agree on an extended-payment plan for helping Marylanders who are in danger of having their service cut off because of past-due bills, according to a report to be discussed at a Public Service Commission hearing Tuesday.

Faced with the prospect of thousands of utility shut-offs this spring, the PSC in March convened the work group and asked it to draft a plan for customers to catch up on their bills without the risk of losing power. The commissioners also suspended service terminations until after Tuesday's hearing.

But the group members could not come to a consensus about the length of the plans or whether to require some customers to pay deposits, according to the report.

"Our basic position is that there should be more flexibility built into the plans to reflect individual circumstances in order to make them affordable and successful," said Paula M. Carmody, head of the Office of the People's Counsel, which represents consumers.

PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian and spokesmen for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Pepco declined to comment on the report before the hearing Tuesday.

The work group agreed that the plans should be offered to all Marylanders and not limited to low-income customers. The utilities proposed plans that would last six to nine months, without interest or late fees.

Utilities want customers who were falling behind before winter to pay a deposit of up to 50 percent before starting a payment plan. They also want the plans to be no longer than nine months, "to minimize the likelihood of the customer being placed in a similar situation again next winter heating season," according to the report.

But consumer representatives argued plans should be longer to ensure debts are spread out enough that customers will be able to pay. They did not object to the idea of a deposit but cautioned that it should not be so large as to jeopardize the success of the plan.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly is moving forward with a bill that would limit utility service cut-offs during extreme temperatures. The bill would prohibit terminations when the temperature rises above 95 degrees, or stays below 32 degrees. The Senate and House of Delegates each gave preliminary approval to the bill Friday.

Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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