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Consumer VIEWS

Getting Wired on Options in Disputing Electric Bill

February 26, 1987|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: What's a consumer supposed to do when the Department of Water and Power fouls up your bill and then refuses to admit its mistake? I live alone in a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica (but in DWP's territory), never use my air conditioning and, because I work, am not even home very much.

Under normal circumstances, my DWP bimonthly bill runs in the $25-to-$35 range (about 350 or so kilowatt hours). But for the period between January and March last year (yes, I've been fighting it that long), my bill jumped to 3,748 kwh, and I got slapped with a bill for $292.65. After that, my bills dropped back to the normal, $25-$35 range.

I refused to pay that one period's ridiculous overcharge, but they have never admitted that it was either a billing or a meter error. They examined the meter and said it was all right.

Then they assigned a man to "survey" my usage of water and power, which he did by talking to me on the phone.

By grossly overguessing my usage of everything in the apartment (including 640 kwh a year of air conditioning use--an appliance I never have to turn on in Santa Monica), he came up with an annual estimate of 4,840 kwh, or more than twice my normal usage. However, when I pointed out to the DWP customer-relations person that the billing period in dispute was only 1,000 kwhs under their too high estimate for the entire year , I got nothing but a stony silence.

Finally Agreed

They finally agreed to knock $150 off that $292.65 bill "in the interest of good customer relations," but I refused (to pay) and they are now on the verge of cutting off my service. What's a person to do except blindly accept their figures?--V.D.

Answer: I wouldn't exactly characterize your yearlong battle with the DWP as the "blind acceptance" of anything. Yes, when you contacted me, the utility was, indeed, planning to unplug you within a few days, but it has put the action on administrative "hold" until this scenario is played out.

Ed Freudenburg, a public-affairs spokesman for the DWP, tells me that his customer-relations office was under the impression that you had agreed to that $150 deduction from the bill as an acceptable compromise, but apparently you have since had a change of heart. You've also stopped paying your other bills that aren't a part of the dispute. But the $150 compromise (along with the cutoff order) has also been put on the back burner for the moment.

How can one isolated bill jump 10-fold from its normal range? It's a good question, Freudenburg admits, and while such a deviation is a long way from being commonplace, there is also, frequently, a logical explanation for it when it does happen.

Sometimes when people have an all-electric apartment with radiant heating in the ceiling, they'll go away on vacation and forget to turn it off--and so it goes on and off all the time they're gone, and it can cause a whopping bill. But, of course, that doesn't apply in your case.

Here's another situation that sometimes happens: For one reason or another, the meter can't be read individually, and so the bill for that period has to be based on an estimate.

For some reason, the estimate is too low, and when the bill is subsequently adjusted the next time--on the basis of an on-site reading of the meter--the adjustment can be a real jolt. Especially if the too low estimate also falls during a cold snap (or, in air-conditioning season, a hot snap), which would produce an unusually high reading anyway.

May Never Know

Whatever the reason, we may never know what happened, but there is a procedure to follow when a customer disputes a DWP billing, and it's spelled out on the back of the bill you receive. There are six regional customer-service areas, and the first order of business is to call the appropriate number and register your complaint, which will be investigated.

If you still think the review is in error, the next step is to contact DWP's customer-relations office, which will delve into the matter more deeply. That, so far, is what you've done, and the $150 compromise offer is what came out of it.

Now what? At this point, Freudenburg says, you have one more route open to you: You can call or write one of the DWP's customer-relations managers--in your case, that would be Gary Hanna--and request a full-scale management-level review before the Board of Water and Power Commissioners. There's one little kicker, though: Within seven days after requesting such a hearing, you're going to have to pay the bill, dispute or no dispute. An adjustment in your favor will trigger a refund.

Alas, that's about the end of the line.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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