The D.C. Public Service Commission voted 2 to 1 yesterday to continue to allow the electric and gas companies to shut off service during the winter to apartment buildings when the landlords fail to pay utility bills.
While the decision was strongly criticized by consumer groups, spokesmen for Potomac Electric Power Co. and Washington Gas Light Co. said shutoffs would remain few in number and would last for only a few hours -- just long enough for the landlord to be charged with a housing code violation so that legal action could be taken against him.
In voting during a hearing yesterday against a winter moratorium on shutoffs, Commissioner William R. Stratton said a moratorium would be "overkill" and would send to landlords "a very clear message (that) you don't have to pay your bill." He said this would take place under "the guise... of compassion for the tenant."
Commissioner Ruth E. Hankins-Nesbitt, who also voted against the moratorium, said the problem is "bigger than the commission. I think other agencies and other departments [of city government] should be involved... "
Commission Chairman Eilzabeth Hayes Patterson, who voted for the moratorium, agreed with Hankins-Nesbitt on this point but argued that a temporary moratorium would provide the needed chance for city agencies to get together and solve the problem without any substantial "deleterious effect on the utility companies."
The scope of the problem has been subject to controversy. There are thousands of apartment buildings in the city with one utility meter serving all units and utility costs included in rents. Pepco and WGL shut off service to 22 of these buildings last year for short periods for nonpayment of bills.
The city was then able to use federal funds to pay the bills and place a lien on the property. But now federal officials have said $400,000 spent this way was not authorized for the purpose and the city must return the money.
'The absence of those funds is not going to make us disconnect those apartment buildings and leave them off," said Pepco senior vice president Paul Dragoumis yesterday. "We'll use other means to seek payment."
The other means are criminal and civil suits against landlords. The brief shutoffs establish a housing code violation, a criminal offense. Two landlords have recently been convicted and fined in this way. Unless the money is recovered through the suits, the utility companies will have to absorb the losses.
D.C. People's Counsel Brian Lederer, who represents consumers in utility cases, said yesterday he was disappointed in the commission's decision because, "The commission has lost the opportunity to take some leadership on this issue."
"The real problem," Lederer said, "is what to do with landlords and the financial squeeze they're in" with increasing utility bills on the one hand and rent control on the other, and "how to protect the tenants in this situation."
There is a moratorium now in effect in Maryland on winter shutoffs to residential customers. There is none in Virginia.