A "consumer bill of rights" that tightens rules for disconnecting household utility services in the District of Columbia and sets up new machinery for refereeing customer complaints was adopted yesterday by the D.C. Public Service Commission.
The document outlaws the imposition of security deposits as a condition for getting telephone service, and puts a ceiling of $100 on deposits that all utility firms can require from customers who consistently are late in paying their bills.
A 1971 decision by the PSC ended security deposits for getting gas and electric service in the city, but permitted the telephone company to continue the practice. Typically, it collects about $60 from a new customer.
The new bill of rights also limits the right of the gas and electric companies to send bills to customers based upon estimates of energy consumption, rather than actual meter readings. The companies no longer may go more than two months with only estimates, and all estimated bills must be clearly labeled.
The widespread use of estimated bills, often followed by a large catchup bill based upon a meter reading, has provoked many complaints to the PSC.
Yesterday's action came at the end of a six-hour meeting of the three-member PSC at which the 27-page document was read aloud, line by line. The unanimous approval followed four years of sporadic study, deliberations and hearings.
Only utility lawyers and reporters were in the audience when the final vote came.
No effective data was set for the new rules. PSC Chairman Elizabeth Hayes Patterson said it probably will be announced in a formal order to be issued later, probably Friday.
There was no detailed analysis available of how the new rules will specifically affect the three utility companies involved-the Potomac Electric Power Co., the Washington Gas Light Co. and the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. "We'll have to read the final order," a gas company lawyer said.
PSC member William R. Stratton said many of the new rules would produce uniform policies by the three utilities in areas where each company now enforces its own rules.
Utility disconnections, an area that became controversial during the cold months of last winter, is one area where uniformity will be imposed.
Under the new fules, customers must be notified by mail at least 15 days before service is to be cut off for nonpayment of a bill or any other reason. A second notification must be attempted by telephone two days before the deadline.
Finally, a gas or electric company representative must make ont try and a phone company representative two tries to find the customer at his or her home, and must be prepared to accept payment.
Under such conditions, a personal check must be accepted, the PSC decided, unless the customer has tried to pay within the previous year with a check that bounced at the bank.
The PSC did not deal with one thorny issue that arose last winter-how to handle cutoffs of utility service in apartment buidlings and projects where there is a single master meter and the landlord is supposed to pay the bill. Patterson said that issue will be considered by a special study task force.
The new bill of rights also will create a new consumer services division within the PSC to referee disputes over bills and utility service. The division will deal informally with disputes at the outset, but will have the power to hold hearings and issue binding decisions, subject to appeal to the PSC itself.
It was not clear how soon this division could go into operation, since the PSC has no budget or personnal available and no request has been made to city budget officials of Congress to provide any.