That's the only explanation I can come up with for that regurgitated pack of lies legislators were fed during the Gov. Org. discussion of the study regarding electric utilities' billing practices on Monday afternoon. I do realize that it was late in the day and our legislators wanted to go home, instead of grilling the company and its regulators. However, only a few legislators managed to ask questions, and they could have done a better job with more information. Nobody expects legislators to have read all the documents in the case, but a little preparation would have been nice. It's up to each one of you to get your legislators up to speed here so that they can do a better job following up on your concerns next time.
Next time? Although Chairman Snyder made noises that the committee "may not pick it up again," let's not kid ourselves. The people haven't lost interest and, in fact, a whole new wave of billing problems is beginning to form. Ut-oh!
Karen Short, PSC attorney, began the festivities by apologizing and making excuses for FirstEnergy again. Her litany of excuses was almost verbatim to those offered by by PSC Communications Director Susan Small back in May. When Small's list of excuses for the company was read aloud at the Citizens' Public Hearing, Senator Snyder went ballistic, shaking his fist and proclaiming that making excuses for FirstEnergy "wasn't their [the PSC's] job!" It must have been the delivery, because I didn't hear Senator Snyder object to:
1. FE had billing problems related to its merger.
2. FE made bad decisions about these changes.
3. Storms! Storms! Storms!
5. Last winter was 30% colder than the one before.
Here's what Short told legislators the PSC was doing or had done to remedy the problems:
1. Ordered FE to make monthly data filings.
2. The General Investigation will evaluate the systemic problems.
3. FE has changed its collection policy to be more customer-friendly.
4. The Commission will render an Order setting public comment hearings.
5. The Commission can order the company to meet specific metrics.
She also asserted that the Commission is concerned about new estimates perpetuating last year's errors. Great... but is she going to read my meter every month now to correct this problem? No. Your "concern" is greatly appreciated, Ms. Short, but why not make the company correct its previous errors and estimation routine to keep it from perpetuating this winter. It's already begun, and we're hardly into the heating season.
Short says FirstEnergy has been "responsive." Maybe that's what it looks like from a seat on the Commission's bench, but the view is so much different from my house.
Byron Harris, Consumer Advocate, stopped by on his last day of work to be congratulated and thanked by the legislators. Even with all that going on, Byron was the only presenter who tried to stick up for you, however, he admitted that he has no data on your complaints because that is handled by PSC staff, and not the Consumer Advocate. The Consumer Advocate has asked for public comment hearings in Charles Town, Martinsburg and Morgantown. If you want one in your town, you need to call the new Consumer Advocate, Jackie Roberts, at 304-558-0526 and let her know.
Byron touched on topics such as pay for performance, making the problems an issue in a future rate case; that the company should have internal controls to flag an account with too many estimates; that he would have to go to hearing to get any remedies the Consumer Advocate might suggest, or FirstEnergy could fight improvement and take the case to hearing. He mentioned that the company has hired a consultant to analyze their billing program, and Byron hopes it will be an independent and honest process. He was asked what the customer remedy would be for the company's failure to follow the tariff and responded that the customer could file a complaint with the PSC.
Byron said the public hearings will be very important. The PSC and the Consumer Advocate needs to hear from you!
Excuses made for FirstEnergy:
1. The company spends $6M/year on meter reading. Having good service will cost too much.
2. Customers can read their own meters.
3. FE "works with customers" and is responsive.
4. There has been some improvement, but there is a long way to go.
In response to Senator Snyder's questioning about an effective legislative remedy, Byron wasn't very helpful, except to shoot down Herb's suggestion to add the meter reading frequency to statute (and perhaps with good reason). If Herb wants some real suggestions, he knows who to ask... or maybe he'll just get told ;-)
FirstEnergy trotted out WV "Director of Operations" Holly Kauffman. Where has this woman been? Nobody has seen or heard from her since this debacle began. Maybe she's just a do-nothing figurehead whose job is to run boring power point presentations and use up valuable discussion time?
Anyhow, Holly said she takes pride in how FirstEnergy supports "our customers." Well, I guess that explains it then. Holly went on to say that FirstEnergy will fix their problems "as a company." Then she made all the same old, tired excuses as Karen Short. Do you think they rehearsed this together while exchanging recipes and doing each other's nails?
Holly wants us to believe that FirstEnergy launched its own "internal investigation." Was that before or after they blew off the Citizens' Public Hearing in Charles Town? Let's save Holly some embarrassment and admit that we sent her a personal invitation. She never responded. Instead, lobbyist Sammy Gray merely "respectfully declined" the invitation for a second time. I guess Holly just does what Sammy tells her to do.
Holly says FirstEnergy's estimation process is fixed! You believe her, don't you? No? Okay then, she also admitted that the EPRI analysis of FE's billing system has not yet been completed... but why should they bother, when it's already fixed? And, one more point to ponder -- who is paying for this study? Surely not the ratepayers, since the problem was caused by the FirstEnergy merger.... and no merger costs are billable to customers. Well, at least that's what the merger stipulation says, but it also says that FirstEnergy's merger would be a huge benefit to electric consumers in West Virginia. We're still waiting, FirstEnergy. Your merger has been nothing but misery and agony for your captive customers.
FirstEnergy did one good thing! I know... shocking, isn't it? Supposedly they have hired 7 roving meter readers to fill in during absences and help the meter readers catch up on those impossibly heavy meter reading schedules. Wow! Did they call in Sherlock Holmes to figure out that they need some sort of back-up system because life happens? They have also supposedly begun calling customers to alert them in advance of a renumbering double billing event about to happen. Is that because that tiny line of text on the bill just wasn't effective? Right.
But then she got carried away and insisted that FirstEnergy is responsive to customers and that no customers had their power disconnected due to the billing fiasco. This is just plain NOT TRUE!
A few legislators asked questions, but Holly batted them all away as insignificant or unworkable. A very unintelligent discussion of smart meters ensued, but Holly's bottom line was that we could either have cheap electricity or good service, but not both.
And make note of this... in the event that you overpay the company due to an over estimated bill, you can call and request that they send you a check instead of being stuck with a huge credit.
To sum it up, FirstEnergy is a company that "continues to improve" and "continues public outreach." After all, when you've hit rock bottom with customer service, the only direction to go is up.
Please write to your legislator and let him/her know that you are not satisfied with Monday's performance.