If you hate getting nasty computer letters about your overdue electric bill, get yourself named to a judgeship or elected to Congress, and the letters will stop.
Judges, members of Congress, elected officials, Cabinet members and "other prominent area people" are tagged under a separate internal coding system at the Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) that protects them from computerized insults and the indignity of automatic cutoffs when bills go unpaid.
Instead, according to Pepco corporate affairs derector Horace Webb, these people get a phone call. Also on the special code, which is not noted on consumer bills, are schools, hospitals, fire stations and government buildings - all customers for whom power cutoffs would probably hurt Pepco more than they would the scoffbill.
"There are thousands and thousands of people in Washington who view themselves as VIPs, and we get loud screams of protest citing the influence of the individual" whenever computer notices go out, which is every day, said Pepco consumer services director Jim Culp.
"The GS-15s (higher-ranking bureaurats) give me more trouble than congressmen." Most GS-15s are not on the special coding, he added, "though they think they ought to be."
only the computer knows for sure how many people and institutions are on the list and which ones are not, Culp said. "It's an informal system. . . there are no formal criteria." He added that it had existed as long as he could remember.
The special tagging comes into play only if a "collection action" is called for on a bill, Webb explained. It means that the case is taken on by a Pepco manager who decides whether a letter or a phone call is appropriate. There is no shilly-shallying about the bill itself, however, he insisted: "Once the customer is identified as having a problem, then Pepco works with them to make sure the bill is paid."
However, at least one person tagged under the special code, who asked not to be identified, claimed that he ran up a bill of nearly $2,000 over a nine-month period without once receiving any kind of remonstrance from Pepco - written or phoned.
"Someone here is not doing their job if that's the case," Culp responded. "To ignore overdue bills would be discrimination and we simply don't do that."
The special code is intented to include "cases where it would be most prudent from a business point of view to have some human, a manager, look at the bill" before the cut-off machinery goes into gear, Webb said. The practice ensures that congressmen traveling when bills come due are not cut off without a chance to pay, and that hospitals and organizations with life support equipment such as kidney dialysis machines are not shut down, he added.
"We just think that's good business practice," Webb said.
Pepco officials declined to say whether they found the VIPs more, or less, delinquent in bill-paying than the rest of the utility's 461,000 customers in the District, part of Arlington County and Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
"We have a longstanding policy of not identifying good or bad customers, not even by class," he said.
Spokesmen for the Virginia Electric and Power Co. and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said those firms have no listing similar to Pepco's.
Seymour Manheimer, chief account ant at the District's Public Services Commission, said he had not known about the VIP tagging and would check with the PSC's attorney before commenting on it.
"If as a result of anyone not paying there is a cost incurred on the rest of the consumers, then it's quite possible it could be unfair," he said.
"I wouldn't want to say it's discrimination without checking," he added. "I'd say it's good politics, wouldn't you?"