By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The Maryland Public Service Commission barred utilities in the state yesterday from shutting off gas and electricity to more than 100,000 customers who have fallen behind on their bills.
Regulators acted at the request of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who requested the delay this week in response to thousands of complaints about unusually high bills this winter. Normally, customers in arrears are given a grace period during the winter, then face shut-off April 1. The commission's action delays that deadline until further notice.
The commission also directed the state's five utility companies to submit a plan by April 1 for offering customers payment plans to spread out their debt before they are issued shut-off notices. Low-income customers are generally offered payment plans, but most of those scheduled for shut-offs have higher incomes, and the utilities are not required to offer them plans.
Robert Gould, a spokesman for Constellation Energy Group, the parent company of Baltimore Gas & Electric, said the company is reviewing the commission's order. BGE is the state's largest utility.
About 84,000 BGE customers and 43,000 Maryland customers of Pepco had faced shut-offs starting April 1, according to the Public Service Commission. Tens of thousands more who are served by Washington Gas, Delmarva Power and other utilities in the state are also affected.
In a statement yesterday, Pepco said it had received the commission's order but had not had time to study it. Customers who can't pay their bills should contact the company about working out a payment plan, the statement said.
"Substantial arrearages resulting from much-higher-than-normal utility bills, coupled with . . . financial strains on families brought on by the economic downturn, portend a potentially disastrous scenario," the commission wrote in a six-page order.
Many customers fall behind on their bills every year, but the numbers have soared this winter. Lawmakers and regulators have been deluged with complaints.
At hearings over the past week, utility officials blamed the increases on cold weather, a longer billing cycle, a practice of estimating bills, and higher commodity prices for natural gas and electricity. They also said customers are using more high-tech gadgets. Many lawmakers said they were not satisfied with the explanation.
Although yesterday's order said the commission "has seen no evidence so far of wrongdoing or widespread inaccuracies" by the utilities, it said it "cannot reach definitive conclusions" about the causes for the higher bills without further investigation.