District residents could take disputes over their utility bills directly to the D.C. Public Services Commission under a "consumers' bill of rights" the commission proposed yesterday.
Spokesman for the Washington Gas Light Co. and the Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) criticized the plan's provision for an extensive process of hearings on complaints. They said it would lead to increased administrative costs that would hve to be passed on to consumers.
The Public Services Commission (PSC) proposal, two years in preparation, would require electric, gas and telephone companies to provide repeated warnings and keep extensive records of violations prior to cutoff of services. It would set up a consumer service division within the PSC to answer questions and handle complaints on an informal basis, with a detailed hearing and appeal procedure available for more difficult cases.
"Most existing practices with regard to customer complaints are informal" explained Dwayne Body of the PSC's accounting bureau."Each company has its own rules. There are certain broad practices they have to adhere to , but that's all . . . They haven't been required to give information on existing rights to customers. Now the rules are formalized and standardized."
Annice Wagner of the D.C. government's People Counsel Office, which proposed the changes two years ago, said current practice allows cutoff of service five or six days after written notification, which often is simply a notice on the bill. The PSC program would require 20 days' notice.
"The language on security deposit requirements was confusing and different for each utility," she said. Often there was no maximum deposit. The PSC plan sets clear limits and provides for a written guarantee in lieu of a deposit where one might otherwise be required.
Under the proposals, each utility would be required to list on its bill a complaint office telephone number where the process of deciding each complaint would begin. If an agreement is reached, it would have to be in writing and include in large letters the notation, "If you are not satisfied with this agreement, do not sign it." The customer would be told to contact the PSC without fear that his service might be cut off during the procedure.
Utility firms would be required to have Spanish-speaking personnel available to handle complaints from the District's Latin community. Each service would have to issue a phamplet summarizing customers "rights" and responsibilities, and all its books on customer service rates, service provisions and the PSC rules would have to be open to the public.
"This is a great thing for consumers," Boyd said. "Previously each company filed its procedures with the PSC and the commission approved or disapproved them. Now the commission has set up rules they must abide by."
Spokesman for the utilities said they were reviewing the proposal and would consider filing objections or possible amendments within the 30 day deadline before the PSC formally adopts the plan.
"Our principal concern . . . is that this would benefit a small number of consumers but would have to be paid for by all," said Charles Krautler, public information manager for Washington Gas Light Co.
He said the PSC proposal would require expensive labor and recordkeeping just to issue cutoff warnings: "You have to send a note, telephone after the note and then send a man into the field to knock . . . If no one's there he has to come back two days later. That's one call and two visits more."
Even then, a customer who has lost the entire appeal procedure can still avoid cutoff of service by paying his bill at the very last minute - to the worker who comes to turn off the service.
Pepco spokesman John Grasser said he thought the hearing procedure would be "redundant. It would bog down a whole process that works fairly smoothly now." Increased administrative costs would have to be passed on to consumers, he said, but added he had no estimate of what those costs might be.
Webb Chamberlain of the C & P Telephone Co. said the proposal contained provisions "that could possibly increase costs," but declined to elaborate pending further study of the document.
The PSC has invited public comment on its proposal. Copies of the document are available free from PSC offices.