Lawmakers Seek Answers on High Utility Bills
Lawmakers waded this morning into the thicket of why utility bills across Maryland are spiking this winter, but didn't appear to resolve much.
Douglas Nazarian, the state's chief utility regulator, told members of two Senate committees that he's concerned about a potential "tsunami" of utility cut offs on April 1 for more than 100,000 residential customers who are behind on their bills.
The date marks the end of the winter restriction period on shut-offs because of the cold weather.
Nazarian said the Public Service Commission is weighing a moratorium on shut-offs. But he acknowledged that such a move would only delay the pain for customers who are behind on their bills.
Nazarian and utility officials were summoned to Annapolis to help lawmakers understand why so many constituents are calling them with complaints about high bills. The PSC has received 3,350 complaints so far this year from customers of Baltimore Gas & Electric, Pepco and Washington Gas. Thousands of households have fallen newly behind on their bills this year and are in danger of cut-offs.
Utility officials blamed this winter's cold weather, longer billing cycles in December and their customers' increasing use of high-tech gadgets. Nazarian told lawmakers, however, that the commission has not received a "wholly satisfiying" answer from utilities at hearings before his commission. He also said that customers are "skeptical" of utility explanations.
Some frustrated lawmakers said they're not satisified with the explanation.
"What do you say to many of my constituents who haven't changed anything and their bills doubled?" said Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore). "They're low-income seniors and they don't have a fancy X-box or any of those gadgets."
BGE vice president Wayne Harbaugh said that even if customers' usage doesn't change, the colder weather can force their furnace or heat pump to work harder, costing them more money. He said the company is encouraging customers in arrears to sign up for payment plans that spread their costs out, and to conserve energy.
March 5, 2009; 2:31 PM ET
Categories: General Assembly , Lisa Rein
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