Overbilled, and powerless

Suzanne Tollefson and the gas meter in question.

Suzanne Tollefson and the gas meter in question.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Escalating natural gas prices may not be the only cause for the high utility bills that Pacific Gas & Electric customers have received. Inaccurate meter readings and back-billing may also be to blame. Unsuspecting customers could be paying as much as $100 to $400 extra each month, and will struggle to get help from either the utility or the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

Suzanne Tollefson, a local attorney who works for an insurance company, is just one of what may be a slew of customers fighting it out with the bankrupt utility company over inaccurate bills.

Tollefson and her husband have an 18-month-old daughter and have lived in their three-bedroom Rancho Cordova home for two years. They use very little gas—about 20 to 25 therms per month. One hot water heater and the occasional use of a spa accounts for all of the gas usage in the 18-year-old home. Tollefson’s monthly PG&E bill has never been more than $25.

So when she received a bill on December 9 for $137.42, and it showed that she’d used 129 therms, she knew something was terribly wrong. Tollefson immediately walked outside to check the gas meter. She found that it read eight therms lower than what was documented on her bill dated December 6.

Since receiving that bill, Tollefson has made numerous phone calls to PG&E, but getting the bill resolved has proved to be a challenge.

While company representatives have continually assured her that the problem would be taken care of, and to ignore the 48-hour shut-off notices, the $137 bill continued to loom overhead.

The first time she contacted PG&E about the inflated bill and the inaccurate meter reading, she was told that her account would be credited for the eight therms. But she wanted her bill to reflect her actual usage.

A PG&E technician was sent out to check the gas line for leaks but found no problems. In fact, Tollefson said the technician told her that, given her usage history, even if they were to use their spa, they would be hard-pressed to use up 129 therms in one month. Tollefson said the technician promised someone would investigate the matter. Meanwhile, the following month, a new bill arrived, this time for only $25, making Tollefson even more suspicious that the previous bill was a mistake.

A review of Tollefson’s PG&E usage records from May 1999 through December 2000 revealed that, on average, she only used four to 27 therms per month. In almost two years, her usage never came close to approaching 129 therms a month.

PG&E representatives offered Tollefson a variety of explanations for the wild spike in her bill. First, she was told that many of the meter readers could not read the meters properly; second, her meter was broken; and third, instead of actually reading her meter, the utility had most likely been basing her bills on her estimated usage, not actual usage over the last two years. Tollefson was outraged and said she told PG&E, “I’m not going to pay a bill when you’re telling me that it essentially resulted from your people being incompetent or not doing their job.” Tollefson said PG&E then explained that they were back-billing her for gas she’d used in the past.

She also says the utility took an “I don’t care” stance with her and told her to pay the bill anyway.

According to PG&E spokeswoman Stacy Homrig, the utility’s pattern of estimating gas usage is a common practice, though she quickly emphasized that the company attempts to read every meter each month. Homrig said there are times when bills are estimated because of lack of access to meters or lack of staff to read the meters. She attributes the current problems to the recent layoffs in January—seven out of 700 meter readers were laid off as part of a cash conservation effort. But, according to Mindy Spatt, media director for The Utility Reform Network (TURN), back-billing is something that PG&E has done at different times, not just during this recent crisis. TURN is a consumer advocacy group that regularly monitors utility issues.

Still, Homrig explained that because there were not enough meter readers to read meters every month, the utility based some customer bills on an average usage instead of actual usage. For example, meter readings might have been taken in January and March but not February. PG&E would review the prior year’s usage for February and bill the customer based on the figures of the previous year’s bill. Then in March, the meter would be read again. The difference between January and March would be calculated, a figure determined, and the difference between that figure, and what was already paid in February, would be billed to the customer for the month of March. Homrig said PG&E officials feel this is the best solution for handling limited staffing and lack of meter access.

Spatt confirmed that there are rules approved by PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission that permit the utility to back-bill consumers for energy that they have consumed but haven’t paid for. But she said there are also rules that require the CPUC to thoroughly examine customer complaints about disputed bills and inform consumers of their determination.

But to customers such as legal secretary Deborah Lohden, who reads her own meter each month, the practice of back-billing simply isn’t fair. A PG&E technician came to her home every six months to verify the reading on her meter. A meter reader came in December 2000 and again in January 2001. So she was shocked when she received a bill for $467 in January. Her previous bill was only $53. The following month’s bill was $225.

Like Tollefson, Lohden has contacted PG&E and was told her meter was under-read in December, and the January billing reflected an adjustment. Lohden believes the outrageous bills are part of a scam to justify rate hikes. “I am livid. My house is well insulated. The whole thing is just a farce,” she said.

When Tollefson had no luck with PG&E or contacting Governor Gray Davis’ office, she followed the directions on the back of her utility bill and wrote to the CPUC. She received a letter stating that they did not handle problems related to rate increases. Tollefson wrote back saying her dispute was over an inaccurate billing. The CPUC again responded in writing, promising to investigate the issue, but it has been three months with no resolution in sight.

Tollefson believes the CPUC, the governor and PG&E have blown her off. “My real frustration is that if that’s the way PG&E wants to do business that’s fine, but what’s the CPUC for? If they’re not willing to help me, then what are they there for?” she asked.

After a recent media inquiry, a PG&E representative contacted Tollefson and informed her that her bill would be adjusted by $32.29, with no explanation as to how they arrived at that figure. When Tollefson told PG&E that was unacceptable, she said she was told that the company was being generous; they would not adjust the bill any further, the amount in dispute was now due. But, according to Spatt, PG&E cannot make any decisions on the issue while it is still with the CPUC.

Tollefson questions how PG&E can get away with overcharging customers by billing them for gas they may never have even used.

“You couldn’t run a gas station by estimating how much people were purchasing and then one day start charging everybody five times more to make up for your broken pumps in the past. It just doesn’t work that way.” said Tollefson.

So now she and her husband may have to consider finding other ways to get power. They currently use the Sacramento Municipal Utility District for their electricity and say they have considered converting to an electric water heater. They’re also looking at using solar power for their energy needs.

When Tollefson was asked if she was concerned about having her gas shut off, she laughed nervously and replied, “Of course I’m concerned. … Given the amount of power they have as a monopoly and no real competition, unless [PG&E] is blatantly breaking the law, I don’t see how I can stop them from doing it.”