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A day-care center’s struggle to pay a $10,000 Pepco bill

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Patricia Moten sighed with relief while looking over the First Rock Baptist Church Child Development Center’s latest electric bill from Pepco. “Total amount due: zero, zero,” she read with a smile.

It had taken two years, but Moten had finally given Pepco its pound of flesh: $10,000 for the center’s overdue electric bill. A water main break back in June 2010 had flooded the day-care center, and the 10 grand had been Pepco’s charge for the electricity used by the cleanup crew to power its tools.

“We asked Pepco to give us a break because the flood wasn’t our fault,” recalled Moten, who runs the center in Southeast Washington and also serves as its outreach minister. Pepco played hardball and reluctantly agreed to a payment plan of no less than $1,500 a month.

You can imagine Moten’s surprise when, in the aftermath of Friday night’s powerful thunderstorm, a Pepco executive asked customers to give the utility company a break. “You can’t say this was a Pepco issue,” Pepco Region President Thomas H. Graham said. “It’s a catastrophic weather event that millions of individuals are experiencing.”

The water main break, by contrast, had affected only 118 children — ranging from infants to 5-year-olds. And Pepco made no qualms about threatening to turn out the lights on them.

“Final notices,” pink slips giving customers 24 hours to pay up or else, were hand-delivered by Pepco representatives. All in all, the collection process had the feel of a loan shark showing up with threats to dislocate the kids unless somebody coughed up the cash.

“They had no sympathy,” said Michelle Jones, the center’s accountant and receptionist.

Bob Hainey, a Pepco spokesman, said the company does not comment on personal accounts or the delivery of final notices to customers. Speaking generally, however, he said: “We don’t just go in coldheartedly and snatch electricity away from people. We try to help people not get into trouble in the first place and, if they do, work out a payment plan that’s consistent and affordable.”

Whatever was being tried with First Rock apparently wasn’t working to everyone’s satisfaction. On April 20, another pink slip was hand delivered to the center demanding a payment of $2,461.80 or “your electric service will be subject to disconnection after today.”

Say what you will about Pepco’s performance in the aftermath of the thunderstorm; making money is what the company does best. The national survey that rated Pepco “the most hated company in America”? Forget about it. And so what if an industry study found Pepco was below the national average in providing reliable service?

Last year, Pepco’s parent company reported a two-year profit of roughly $267 million. Joseph M. Rigby, the Pepco chairman and chief executive, earns nearly $1 million a year — not including stock and bonuses. On top of that, the company is seeking a 5 percent rate hike in the District and another 4 percent hike in Maryland. If approved, customers can expect to see at least another $5 tacked on their monthly bills.

Meanwhile, Moten and Jones are still trying to understand where the money Pepco already collects actually goes. After spreading out several months’ worth of bills and cut-off notices, they studied them for clues. One bill included two separate “energy charges,” for $305.07 and $132.57. There was also something called a “demand charge,” for $146.87.

“A demand charge?” Moten asked. “Must be the ‘Put up your hands, this is a stick up’ demand charge.”

When she got to the “delivery tax,” which was charged at “0.0077000 per KWH” for $35.73, she actually threw up her hands.

Gibberish or not, Moten was determined to do whatever it took to keep the center open.

“When you shut down a day-care center, the parents don’t go to work or school, and sometimes the kids don’t even eat,” Moten said. “People lose jobs because so much depends on day care. When it’s hot and Pepco can’t keep the power on just because it rains, parents come here to keep their children cool, sometimes just to give them a cool drink of water.”

Taking a closer look at one of those pink slips, she declared, “Corporate America sees what’s happening, but greed is robbing the world of compassion and there is spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Hours before the storm hit Friday, Moten received a letter in her mailbox at home: Pepco was suing her for $1,697.78. The electricity in her home had already been turned off; her money had been spent to help keep the lights on at the day-care center.

Holding the Pepco “paid in full” statement to the day-care center in one hand and the notice of the civil suit in the other, Moten thanked God.

“They can take me to jail if they want,” she said. “But the children are free.”

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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