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Bulbs in the mail spark bill

February 02, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - A state bill filed Thursday would prohibit another light bulb distribution such as Allegheny Power's unless customers expressly consent to a new product or service.

Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, said his bill was sparked by Allegheny's "combination of arrogance and deceit" in mailing fluorescent light bulbs to customers who thought they were free.

Under the bill, the Maryland Public Service Commission couldn't allow a Maryland gas or electric company to bill customers for energy-saving measures they didn't ask for.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, who cross-filed the bill in the state Senate, said customers probably would have to fill out and mail back cards stating their permission.

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"If they don't want them, they shouldn't have to pay for them," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, who sent Allegheny a protest letter as chairman of the Western Maryland delegation.

A surcharge and its purpose would have to be clearly explained on customers' bills.

Kelly said his bill also is aimed at similar programs under way at other Maryland power companies.

Elsewhere in the state, customers paid a surcharge and were sent coupons redeemable for light bulbs at certain stores.

Utilities that didn't get customers' consent would have to refund or credit all surcharge money collected since Sept. 1, 2007, according to Kelly's bill.

Allegheny mailed compact fluorescent light bulbs to its roughly 220,000 residential customers in Maryland around Christmas, creating an extra delivery burden for post offices.

Customers and lawmakers were upset after a Jan. 7 story in The Herald-Mail explained that Allegheny was charging customers $11.52 apiece for two bulbs through a monthly surcharge that took effect Oct. 3.

Criticism and apology

As backlash mounted, the Public Service Commission, which approved the program, summoned Allegheny officials to Baltimore for a hearing. The commission criticized Allegheny for how the bulbs were distributed without a clear explanation to customers.

Allegheny representatives apologized. They said they would cancel the program and refund the surcharge. Company shareholders will absorb the $2.5 million cost of the distribution and an education campaign.

The PSC is reviewing the bill, but had nothing to say for now, spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards said Friday.

Allegheny spokesman Todd Meyers e-mailed a statement in response to a request for comment. It said: "Allegheny Power will certainly abide by any laws as enacted by the Maryland State Legislature and continue to follow the directives of the Public Service Commission with respect to energy-efficiency and conservation programs."

As of Friday, Allegheny and the PSC hadn't worked out how the utility would refund customers' surcharge payments.

Meyers said the company and the PSC are finalizing language for full-page newspaper ads that Allegheny will run explaining the program and apologizing for the company's mistakes.

Kelly filed his bill as an emergency measure. It would need a three-fifths vote of each house to pass.

Six members of the Washington County delegation signed on as sponsors. Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, did not.




ยท To read Del. Kevin Kelly's bill, go to http://mlis.state.md.us/2008rs/billfile/hb0608.htm

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