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Getting Time Warner Cable to repent

Roman Catholic priests at a North Hollywood parish seek help after unsuccessfully trying to find out why the company was sending them additional bills for service.

February 15, 2011|David Lazarus
  • The Rev. Tom Batsis and two other priests living in the rectory of a North Hollywood church were perplexed by bills they were sent.
The Rev. Tom Batsis and two other priests living in the rectory of a North… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

The Rev. Tom Batsis sat in the dining room of the priests' residence at a Roman Catholic church in North Hollywood, religious images gracing the wall behind him.

He hadn't invited me to visit because he wanted to discuss spiritual matters. Batsis wanted to talk about the trouble he and the two other priests in the rectory were having with Time Warner Cable.

They believed they were victims of identity theft, he said, but the cable giant didn't seem interested in discussing the matter. They also believed they were being unfairly charged commercial rates for service, as opposed to lower residential rates. But the company wouldn't discuss that either.

"What recourse does the little guy have?" Batsis, 69, wanted to know.

Well, I pointed out, he could take his case to a higher authority.

"You would think," Batsis replied with a smile.

Apparently even the Almighty wants nothing to do with the cable industry.

Time Warner's dealings with the priests of St. Jane Frances de Chantal parish illustrate a common complaint from consumers — the difficulty of being heard by big companies even when the customer has done nothing wrong.

Even for those who know all too well that patience is a virtue, it can be very frustrating.

Batsis serves as procurator, or treasurer, for the rectory, a modest living quarters sandwiched between the church and a McDonald's.

The facility's three priests pay Time Warner about $290 a month for TV and Internet access. For that heavenly sum, they get a cable box in each of the three bedrooms, plus one in the recreation room, one in a guest room and one in a "fitness room" consisting primarily of a stationary bike.

Batsis said he set it up so the cable bill arrives electronically each month and is deducted automatically from a parish checking account. But a few months ago, he received a paper bill from Time Warner seeking about $100 in additional payment. It was marked "past due."

"I just ignored it," Batsis said. "We pay our bill every month."

Then a Time Warner rep called the parish to demand payment of the outstanding bill, followed by additional paper bills, one for $239.35 and another for $119.01.

As a responsible procurator, Batsis sent a registered letter to Time Warner requesting more information about the questionable account — who had established it and when. He never got a response.

Batsis said he was completely flummoxed. He didn't know why Time Warner hadn't responded to his request for more info, nor did he understand the company's rationale for seeking $100 and then $239 and finally $119.

So in classic turn-the-other-cheek fashion, he decided to pay the bill.

"I thought they would keep dinging us with charges," Batsis explained. "I was afraid they would turn us over to a bill collector."

This wasn't the parish's first run-in with Time Warner. Batsis said the reason he and the other priests are charged so much for TV and Internet service is because the cable company insists they're a commercial enterprise.

"I've argued with them about this," he said. "I've explained that we're in a private residence. But the company insists that we're a commercial account. They've been very adamant about that."

Even if one is inclined to think of many religious institutions as being little more than tax-exempt businesses, it seems a bit heavy-handed to classify a priests' residence as a commercial enterprise.

No religious services or other church business are conducted there. It's basically a dorm for men of the cloth.

Much of the priests' TV viewing occurs in the rec room, where each man has his favorite easy chair in front of a large flat-panel TV. A stained-glass window depicting Mary and Jesus also faces the tube.

The Rev. Brian Henden, 47, another resident of the rectory, said the priests typically gather to watch news and sports.

"And whatever's on PBS," he added. "Monday nights are usually good on PBS if you like history."

After I brought the priests' concerns to Time Warner, the company spent several days investigating the matter. A company rep then contacted the parish.

Batsis told me afterward that Time Warner had traced the errant bill to what the company said was "an old account" related to the church. The company had apparently sent out a past-due bill for the account without first checking into whether it was still active, which it wasn't.

Time Warner said it will refund the priests' money. The company rep also pledged to investigate why commercial rates are being charged for what's actually a private residence (albeit one on church property).

Batsis said he was relieved to have finally gotten some resolution to these matters. But he now wonders how many other people might be out there who also are being wrongly billed or overbilled.

"How many other little guys are there who, out of fright, are paying these bills?" Batsis asked.

Is overbilling a sin?

"Yes, absolutely," Batsis said. "Thou shall not steal."

And I'm guessing it would take more than a few Hail Marys for a company to get off the hook.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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