Regulated and regulator have joined together to expend quite a bit of time and money on a farcical series of "public comment hearings" that turned out to be nothing but publicity stunts attempting to mollify unhappy customers, convince them that the company did nothing wrong, and that all the problems have been solved. I'd expect nothing less from FirstEnergy, but I really expected more from the West Virginia Public Service Commission.
Fortunately, our legislature has our back this time and has opened their own investigation of the PSC's investigation. Be sure to let your legislator know how unhappy you are with the PSC's behavior and media spin at the hearings.
The problems began with the PSC's announcement that FirstEnergy would be making a presentation at the beginning of what was inaccurately described as a PUBLIC comment hearing. FirstEnergy isn't "the public," and we're sick and tired of hearing their spin. We all know the story by heart now... Storms, 30% Colder, and Renumbering, Oh My!
In addition, the PSC "ordered" FirstEnergy to issue a press release about the meetings to the media. FirstEnergy did it in such a way that nobody paid any attention and made sure there would be no advance notice of the hearings in the media. None of the media I contacted knew anything about the hearings. That's funny, when everybody in the area can recite FirstEnergy's billing excuses from memory. The company didn't seem to have any trouble making sure that message got out to the media.
To top it all off, many who attended in Shepherdstown complained that, in addition to plain old lack of timely notice, the hearings were scheduled at hours inconvenient to the Eastern Panhandle's commuting population. An evening hearing beginning at 5:30 was much too early, when at least 50% of the residents face at least an hour (or more, sometimes lots more!) commute back home after getting off at 5:00. Since it was unknown how long the hearing would last, many simply didn't make the effort to come all the way to Shepherdstown to find out if it was still going on when they finally got back to West Virginia.
And then let's think about the PSC's order that FirstEnergy bring along a crew of customer service reps. Why do you suppose that was? It was so the PSC would have a fictional happy place to pass off the sadder stories they would undoubtedly have to endure at these hearings. It makes them look like they care and that they have "helped" people. Maybe it even makes them feel that way too, even if it isn't true. The craziest moment of Shepherdstown's two hearings may have been when Chairman Albert went right on advising a disabled vet to visit the nice company reps in the other room to make things all better, while someone who went to Happy Town before her could be heard yelling "I don't want any more of your excuses!" while police ran through the auditorium to break it up. Chairman Albert didn't miss a beat. Was everyone holding hands and singing Kumbaya backstage in the customer service area? Nope, but that's another post.
Can we also ponder the timing of these "public comment hearings" in the grand scheme of the investigation? Why did the Commission feel it was necessary to put the public input part of this investigation off for 4 months after opening the investigation? It was because it was hoping that the public would lose interest while lower summer and fall usage made it appear that the company had "solved" the problem.
Of course, the media can't be entirely blameless here either. The sad state of our media is readily apparent when reviewing "news" from the hearings. Young reporters who are pushed to produce quantity over quality choose to take the pre-packaged story presented to them by spinners like Toad Meyers and Susan Small, even when it doesn't correlate to what the reporter can see and hear for herself. Much of the news to come out of the supposed "public comment" hearings was focused on the actions of the company or the PSC, instead of the actual public they were intended to hear from. Reporters weren't interested in hearing from the public, they were satisfied with the PSC and FirstEnergy's interpretation of why the public was unhappy.
Only the experienced WV Public Broadcasting reporter produced an accurate, unbiased story. The rest of the reporters were just wasting our time.
The sole bright spot in this debacle was watching FirstEnergy spinner Toad Meyers become increasingly unglued as the questions got harder. The quotes attributed to him went from bad to worse.
“There may be a little bit less meter readers .."
For a little bit less accuracy? Ya know how I know you're making crap up, Toad? Because it's a grammatical disaster!
“We’re trying to improve the estimation, the logarithm, the routine so we can get a more accurate estimate.”
If FirstEnergy doesn't understand the difference between a logarithm and an algorithm, its no wonder they're having so many problems estimating peoples' bills!
“One thing that I’ve got to stress that is very important, everyone’s situation with electricity is unique, with their properties, with their usage. So if people have a question they need to call us directly and work with us.”
What does uniqueness have to do with it being important to contact the company (instead of The Coalition for Reliable Power perhaps?) Logic fail!
Mon Power Spokesman Todd Meyers said it all started with the derecho.
No, it all started with the costly Allegheny Energy/FirstEnergy merger in 2011. The company needed to find a way to pay for that, and cutting services for customers produced "merger synergies."
Meyers acknowledged that meter reading has declined, explaining that about seven percent of meters were being read every other month, a number that fell to two and a half percent.
Let's take a moment to examine Toad's Magic Math. Seven percent of meters are being read every other month. This means that 93% of meters are NOT being read every other month. This statistic lines up with the results of our own customer survey, where 89 of 92 customers said their meter had not been read every other month as required by the tariff. But why would Toad brag about this stunning lack of performance? Why, Toad, why?
Meyers said the next step after the hearings will involve the PSC looking at the transcripts from the hearings and sending reports to Mon Power and Potomac Edison..."
Who's in charge here? Mon Power and Potomac Edison or the PSC, compiler and sender of "reports" for the company's use?
"Between the storms, between the renumbering, something that we instituted to make the process better but in the short run it actually made some things worse. You had a string of estimates, and that could result at the end where we came out to read a meter in a larger than expected actual bill," said Todd Meyers.
Wow, Toad! That's a very impressive string of senseless babble. It's practically incoherent. You should get a nice bonus for that one!
"Our belief is that we're able to do it every other month, it's worked well doing that except for more recently but i think we're going back to the place where it worked pretty well," said Todd Meyers, Potomac Edison's spokesman.
Again, incoherent babble that would make an English teacher cringe, but let's try to translate. Toad believes that if they "do it" every other month it works well. Except that they didn't "do it" every other month. So, it didn't work well. Toad thinks that maybe they might be going back to "doing it" every other month, so maybe it's going to work "pretty well." Except, it's not.
"Believe me, we want to make this right, we want to fix this and we worked very diligently to do that and we continue to work, and anything that comes out of this investigation, anything that the PSC prescribes is something that would be good to do going forward, you know, we'll be doing that," said Meyers.
I'm sorry, I'm not buying this fake concern. Is there anybody who thinks Toad is sincere? "Believe me?" Hahaahahaaaaa! After all these years of pissing on the public's leg and telling them it's raining, now Toad wants us to "believe" him? FirstEnergy has steadfastly denied there is a problem to be fixed, and has only "worked very diligently" to cover up the company's culpability. I am thrilled to know that "we" will be following any orders of the PSC though. Nice touch! But, the company already admits it has not complied with its PSC-ordered tariff, so we'll assume it will afford equal deference to whatever the PSC "prescribes." (I would order a big ol' dose of sodium pentothal).
However, they don't think they'll be able to do a meter reading every month because of staffing.
I guess it's going to cost your company some money to hire enough staff then, Toad. Duh. That's part of the penalty to "make things right."
Moving forward, Potomac Energy officials say they'll do what's best for the customer.
Because the company has been doing what's best for the company up until this point?
Poor, idiotic Toad Meyers. But, at least he was only attempting to represent his company. The PSC's spinner, Susan Small, was attempting to tell the media what the public was thinking. Susan has no idea what the problem is here, much less what the Commission will do about it. Susan blew off the Citizens' Public Hearing in Charles Town in May, sending a letter of excuses for the company, instead of a staff member. Susan has a lot on her plate, and that's a shame, but if she can't do her job because of it, then she needs to step down. When asked why she couldn't be bothered to do any public relations to promote these public hearings in the media, Susan hid behind the requirement that they be advertised in the legal section of the local paper as "adequate notice" to the public. When asked about the purpose of the press release FirstEnergy was ordered to produce, I don't remember her having much of an answer. Let's take a look at Susan's attempts to frame a problem she knows nothing about (and probably cares about even less):
“My bill is inconsistent, I’m getting estimated bills instead of actual bills,” are the most common complaints the PSC has heard, Small said.
“Between weather situations and the way that they changed their billing processes, many customers have received two, three, four, five estimated bills in a row,” Small said. “And unfortunately, a lot of those estimates have been very low, so when the true-up bill comes, all of a sudden, it’s much higher than the customer’s expecting.”
“That’s what we’re working on now. One of the things they (the customer) can do is call the company and make sure that it’s an actual reading, that that’s actually what they owe, and if it’s more than they can handle right off, work out a deferred payment plan, sort of putting your arrearage on a budget plan so that you can pay it off over a number of months,” according to Small.
Small added FirstEnergy, the parent corporation of both companies, is being required to submit customer service metrics to the PSC on a monthly basis, but they also want to hear from the customers.
"They ordered the companies to file specific customer service metrics so we can keep track of things like calls into the call center, whether or not people are being satisfied with the first call, how long they're having to wait on the phone," said PSC spokesperson, Susan Small.
"It wouldn't be unreasonable in this kind of case for the commission to issue a final order that required first energy to keep up the flow of data coming into the commission so we can make sure that their customer service numbers are where they should be and the customer is getting the service they deserve," said Small.
I'm sure those customer service metrics are going to come in handy to keep people warm this winter when they can't pay their badly estimated bills. Maybe Susan intends for you to roll them up into paper logs and burn them to keep warm?
Thanks for the "help," Susan. I'll be handing out YOUR phone number to people who can't pay their bills this winter, instead of the phone number of my little friend at the customer call center. Too bad Susan isn't proactive enough to provide advice on how to prevent those large bills from ever happening in the first place, so that no one ever has to "pay their bill off over a number of months," because then we wouldn't need to hand out anyone's phone number.
This story is an absolute mess.
This story doesn't even mention the PSC's involvement.
Maybe Susan should have been doing her job all along, instead of trying to simply make it LOOK like she's been working by jumping in front of every TV camera that showed up at the hearings.
So, let's review. The PSC set this up to make itself simply appear to be taking action. The purpose and timing of the hearings was carefully planned to make sure most people could or would not attend. Despite a steady turn out of articulate, credible "public" with compelling and shocking stories that painted FirstEnergy's incompetence and greed as bordering on criminal, the story that was spun for the media is that the problems are fixed and everyone is happy.
The West Virginia Public Service Commission continues to fail the public it is tasked with protecting from utility monopolies. Tell your elected officials that we need to make changes at the PSC until the needs of the public are being served.