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Billing complaints prompt Maryland Public Service Commission to launch investigation of PE

April 12, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

The Maryland Public Service Commission in Baltimore is launching an investigation into complaints that Potomac Edison overbilled some Western Maryland electricity customers by failing to read their meters as often as required.

The agency opened a case file Tuesday on customer complaints that their meters were read less often than every other month, as required by law.

The case stems from complaints made last summer, including those filed last May by the former Frederick-based Sugarloaf Conservancy. The civil preservation group said Potomac Edison read their members’ meters an average of four times during a 13-month period in 2011 and 2012.

The complaints allege that the practice resulted in usage estimates that exceeded the amount of electricity consumed.

Potomac Edison, which is owned by FirstEnergy Corp., of Akron, Ohio, acknowledged in July that it missed some readings, but said its estimates were fair. Company officials then said they would put more meter readers in the field.

A pre-hearing conference on the matter is scheduled for May 16 at 10 a.m., in the PSC’s 19th floor hearing room of the William Donald Schaefer Tower, 6 Saint Paul St., Baltimore.

When reached for comment Friday, Potomac Edison spokesman Todd Meyers acknowledged that the company “definitely” had some challenges and issues in the past year, “but many of those are behind us at this point.”

“A lot of it was related to some storms ... when we re-route meter readers and we have them going out to help with hazard response,” Meyers said of the problems in mid-2012. “They would be out there doing public safety things, and when they’re doing that, obviously they’re not able to read meters.”

Meyers said the company operates by taking an actual reading one month, then an estimate is used for the following month.

During the height of the storms last summer, Meyers said they had about 4,600 out of 51,000 total customers in Washington County who did not have actual readings done in that prescribed cycle, which led to some meters going five straight months without an actual reading.

Since then, Potomac Edison has hired nine additional meter readers and also improved its computer system that automatically schedules meters to be read to prevent consecutive estimated readings, he said.

Meyers said about 98 percent of meters in Washington County scheduled to be read during March were completed, nearly the same percentage for readings done in February.

The 4,600 meters that went unread for five months last summer have now been cut to just 29 meters unread last month, Meyers said.

“Often times ... there’s probably an access issue,” he said, pointing to dogs and locked porches or gates containing meters as being barriers for meter readers.

Potomac Edison also is working on reconfiguring the field routes of meter readers to increase efficiency and proximity, allowing one meter reader to assist in completing another worker’s route if they finish theirs ahead of schedule, Meyers said.

“When we renumber the routes, it will change temporarily the time people are billed and it could change whether they have an estimated reading that month,” he said. “We’re doing that right now over in Frederick County, but we’ll be moving along with that process later summer or fall” in Washington County.

Meyers said that although the PSC had not taken action on the complaints until recently, Potomac Edison, which serves about 250,000 customers throughout Maryland, has been working to correct the issues and keep the agency informed along the way.

“I think that we are just about where we need to be right now,” he said.

In the event that a customer is overbilled, Meyers said that person should call the Potomac Edison customer service center at 1-800-686-0011. A utility company is required by law to assist customers who have complaints about their bill.

Meyers said monthly estimates are generally calculated by looking at a customer’s usage during that month from the previous year. If the customer has not had Potomac Edison for a full year, the previous month is then considered, he said, also noting that the company takes into account relative outdoor temperature when calculating bills.

“If they paid for more electricity than they’ve consumed, they’ll get a credit,” Meyers said. “The idea is that it all comes out in the end, and our customers are billed only for the electricity that they use. Maybe not in a given month, but it does work out to that ultimately.”

The Sugarloaf Conservancy has since dissolved during the nearly seven months of inaction by the PSC, according to former president Doug Kaplan, who called the ordeal a “frustrating situation.”

“This is a pattern they have had over many years and each time it’s raised they give excuses and reasons, which ... they’re becoming old, stale at this point,” said Kaplan, a Frederick-area resident. “This has gone on for a long time, and they always give the standard replies.”

Kaplan said he was a bit surprised to learn that the PSC was now establishing a case investigating Potomac Edison, almost a year since his now-defunct group first filed its formal complaints.

“We asked that a case be established and that proof be presented that things were changing, and that the case remains open so on a monthly basis they’d have to report back” to establish milestones for the company to meet, Kaplan said. “Otherwise, this problem will not be resolved.”

— Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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