Perhaps they should have known better.
PSE&G hadn’t been reading their meters, the customers said, so their bills were estimated. Estimated at less than $10 per month.
When the utility finally noticed, these customers were sent jumbo bills. The customers agree if they used the gas, they should pay for the gas. But they want to know how PSE&G can go months, even years, without noticing that the meters hadn’t been read.
“There should be a red flag raised when you hit a certain dollar number in arrears,” said Robert Gershon, a Livingston homeowner who recently received a bill for more than $4,000 from PSE&G. “How can they do that?”
Here’s what happened.
The Gershons have been in their home since 1994, and they receive gas and electric service from PSE&G.
They pay their bills through an equal payment plan of $409 per month. About $125 of that went to electric, with the rest — they thought — going to payments for gas.
“They are supposed to review the account every six months and adjust it accordingly,” he said, noting his account had never before been short on the equal payment plan. “They told me they haven’t been getting accurate readings.”
Not accurate, for sure. Gershon said three years ago, he made energy efficiency improvements to the home and monthly bills went down $50.
And last year, he said he received a $1,200 credit for overpayment from the year before.
“How am I short $4,000 on top of that in gas alone in one season?” he said.
Stranger yet, Gershon said PSE&G customer service reps have been unable to locate the part of the $409 monthly payments that should have been applied to gas charges.
The missing funds probably added to the heft of the July bill, which said the family owed $4,414.53.
Gershon said a supervisor promised to ask for approval for him to pay an additional $100 per month for the old charges, and his account would state that service should not be shut off. The supervisor never called him back or returned the many messages he left seeking confirmation, he said.
Then a week ago, a PSE&G rep knocked on the door and said he’s supposed to shut off service if Gershon didn’t pay what he owed. Gershon explained about the payment plan and that he had just sent in $500 at the end of July. The rep said he could have a few more days to settle the bill.
His account remains in limbo.
Gershon wants to know where his missing gas payments are, and why the utility continues to threaten to shut off service.
ANOTHER UNHAPPY CUSTOMER
Christopher and Leisel Hoffman shared a similar tale with a bill of more than $2,000.
The couple has been renting a three-floor home in Monroe since November 2009, and they paid their small gas bills — between $5.86 and $10 per month — on time.
“We rarely use gas,” Christopher Hoffman said, noting the family has an electric stove and large windows that let in lots of heat from the sun, even in the winter months. “We even have portable electric heaters that we plugged in so we never used the gas much at all.”
Then came the April 2011 bill for more than $2,000.
“We had contacted PSE&G and they advised that our meter was last read in December 2009 and they estimated our bill throughout the entire year of 2010,” Christopher Hoffman said.
The Hoffmans, who have two teens and are expecting a baby, said they were never notified of unsuccessful meter readings, so they had no idea there was a problem.
Soon after the big bill arrived, a PSE&G representative visited the home and said the meter should have been replaced by the landlord in January 2009.
They arranged for a new remote meter — one that could be read by a company truck simply passing by the home. The couple missed two days of work waiting for techs who never showed up for appointments. Finally in July, the new meter was installed.
“The new meter is set up so for a reading all they have to do is drive by and they cannot even do that,” he said, noting that reps told him it’s the customer’s responsibility to make sure meters are read.
“I do not see how the residence has to be held accountable for PSE&G not doing their job,” said Hoffman. “For an entire year to pass and PSE&G not even own up to their responsibility of error and then placing this burden on the resident? It’s completely unethical.”
Hoffman negotiated a payment plan of an additional $150 a month until the bill was satisfied. In return, Hoffman said, the company said it would not threaten to shut off the gas.
But on Aug. 12 he received a note saying they must pay $1,500 by Aug. 12 or PSE&G would terminate service.
“We are like every other hard-working middle class family trying to make a life and raise a family of our own and to feel taken advantage of or placed in a position that is unethical by a company such as PSE&G, their actions are just not justified,” Hoffman said.
These two PSE&G customers are willing to pay their bills. But they’re angry, and they say PSE&G should be responsible for accurate meter-reading rather than shocking customers with a big-ticket bill.
The regulations leave questions as to whether or not PSE&G did what it was supposed to do.
N.J.A.C. 14:3-7.2 says: “Utility companies shall maintain a regular meter reading schedule and make a reasonable effort to read all meters.”
“After a utility estimates an account for four consecutive monthly billing periods, the utility must notify the customer that a meter reading must be obtained,” said Greg Reinert, a spokesman for the state Board of Public Utilities.
According to the customers’ reports, it doesn’t sound like that’s what happened.
We asked PSE&G to review their accounts.
PSE&G was unable to read the Hoffmans’ remote reader, said spokeswoman Bonnie Sheppard.
“Unfortunately, and this was totally our error, it was incorrectly programmed and so did not work properly,” Sheppard said. “That has been corrected.”
The Hoffmans were issued a new bill and a new payment plan will be established, Sheppard said.
PSE&G also reviewed the Gershon account, and Sheppard said the confusion was caused because bills were generated from a combination of customer reads, estimated reads and actual reads.
“After an actual read, the system issues credits for prior bills and rebills for actual reads,” Sheppard said. “This sometimes results in multiple bills received.”
Some of the bills made it appear he had credits, but they were followed up with bills that reflected the adjustments.
“From looking at all the documents, it is completely understandable as to why he is confused,” she said, noting a manager will contact Gershon today with a detailed explanation and to work out a payment plan.
“We most sincerely regret the distress caused to the customer over issues associated with his account but assure you that the matter will be resolved with him.”
Also, a new remote reader will be installed today.
A word of advice: No matter what utility you use, read your bills closely. Pay attention to whether that month’s charges are estimated or based on an actual meter reading. If you’ve had too many estimates in a row, you could be in for a billing surprise. Don’t wait for the utility to notify you. Call your utility and request a reading.
If that doesn’t work, file a complaint with the BPU at (800) 624-0241.