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WV Legislature to investigate electric utility billing practices

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The West Virginia Legislature will investigate the meter reading and billing practices of electric utilities in the state, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, announced June 12.

"I have received a multitude of complaints from my constituents regarding deceptive practices when it comes to their electric bills," said Unger in a media release. "It is time for the Legislature to examine these practices to ensure that our laws are being followed."

The investigation is prompted by complaints from constituents about billing disputes, as well as by the more than 750 requests for assistance the Public Service Commission of West Virginia has received on the topic, Unger said.

The PSC announced on June 7 that it would conduct an investigation, but Unger said the Joint Standing Committee on Government Organization — chaired by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, and Delegate Jim Morgan, D-Cabell — will conduct an independent investigation.

The complaints center on FirstEnergy subsidiary Potomac Edison, which serves customers primarily in the Eastern Panhandle. Potomac Edison bases its bills on alternate months of estimated and actual meter readings, but over the past two years it has relied more often on estimated readings. Ratepayers complain of overestimates that cause them to pay ahead as well as underestimates that results in burdensome true-ups when actual meter readings come through.

FirstEnergy has attributed the problems to adjustments resulting from its acquisition in 2011 of previous parent Allegheny Energy and to a series of large storms that interrupted meter reading schedules. It has said the problems are being resolved.

"It's just not logical some of the bills that people are getting," said Unger, who has heard FirstEnergy's explanations and said he and his constituents are unsatisfied.

"And it raises another concern," he said. "If, for example, someone charges you $500 on your electric bill and you pay it, and next month they charge you $0 and you call and say what's going on and they say we overestimated, then they can be doing that to lots of customers and investing those overcharges for that month."

He also is concerned that, while gasoline pumps are inspected occasionally by Weights and Measures at the West Virginia Division of Labor to be sure gasoline station owners are charging customers properly, no third party inspects the electric meters that are calibrated and read by the electric utilities.

"In order to bring consumer confidence back into the system, we really need to take a hard look and see what are the problems," he said.

Unger said the Legislature doesn't want to duplicate effort but rather will include an examination of the PSC's investigation in its own work.

Possible outcomes, he said, could be administrative recommendations for the utilities, regulatory solutions issued by the commission, and statutory solutions enacted by the Legislature.

The Legislature's investigation will include all of the state's electric utilities and likely will be taken up during July interims, Unger said.