"I'm up to my neck in complaints," said Earl Martyn with a smile. "I keep telling them if they'd give me more personnel I could do a better job."
Each week Martyn, the D.C. Public Service Commission's complaint-taker, receives about 40 phone calls and letters from irate customers who are having problems with the gas, electric or telephone companies that the PSC regulates in the District.
Martyn's operation is an informal one. He chats over the phone in a low-key, folksy way with customers and company representatives in an effort to solve the problems. If he fails, long and costly formal procedures may follow.
Those procedures may become even more elaborate, Martyn said, if the proposed Consumer Bill of Rights under study by the PSC and scheduled for hearings starting next Wednesday are adopted.
"The procedural thing this Consumer Bill of Rights sets up would be so time-consuming it might be a couple of years before the utility could even turn (a customer's service) off." Martyn said. "If the utility is found correct, then it just prolongs the agony."
Although Martyn does not favor this part of the proposed bill, he does favor another suggestion that would eliminate estimated bills and require companies to send bills based on actual meter readings each month. The electric company is supposed to do this now unless it cannot read a customer's meter, while the gas company is now allowed to estimate bills every other month.
"Basically, people just don't like estimated bills, period," Martyn said. "They say, 'I couldn't have used that much gas.' The only thing to do then is get a re-read of the meter."
Along with estimated bills, Martyn said he receives the most complaints about security deposits required by the utility companies. The gas, electric and telphone companies now hold more than 75,000 deposits from customers in the District. The commission has announced it is seriously considering eliminating them.
The fuel adjustment and purchased gas adjustment items on customer bills also draw larger numbers of questions and complaints, Martyn said. He said he receives most complaints about Washington Gas Light Co. is next and C&P Telephone Co. last.
Martyn is ambivalent on whether eliminating security deposits would be a good idea. The utilities oppose the idea while consumer advocates praise it. "There are good arguments on both sides," Martyn said. "One thing in favor of deposits is that it tends to keep the uncollectables (unpaid bills) down."
Martyn said many provisions in the proposed bill are already in force, but "they're scattered throughout the regulations" so that consumers are often unaware of them.
When Martyn receives a complaint, he first tries to get the customer and company to work together. If that does not work he interviews both sides and makes a decision.
"Over 75 percent of the complaints I can solve by telephone," he said.