Pgw: Street Owes $5,623

Posted: September 25, 1987

City Councilman John Street, a member of the commission that sets rates and shutoff policies for the Philadelphia Gas Works, owes the gas company more than $5,600, according to papers PGW filed in federal bankruptcy court.

The city-owned utility filed a document in June stating that, as of mid- May, when Street filed for bankruptcy, the councilman owed PGW $2,553 for gas usage at 1812 Diamond St., $1,802 for gas at 1409 N. 15th St., and $1,267 for gas-fired space heaters at the 15th Street house.

In his bankruptcy filing, Street listed the Diamond Street address as his residence and the 15th Street address as a building he owns.

There was no explanation from PGW for how the bills got so high or why PGW continued to provide service to Street at two locations in spite of the unpaid bills, totaling $5,623.

Street told the Daily News this week that he knew nothing about PGW's claim in his bankruptcy case. Asked if he owed PGW any money he replied, "Not as far as I know."

Pressed for an explanation, Street said, "I don't have any idea about how I could owe PGW $5,000 under any circumstances, at any time, bearing in mind, of course, I haven't seen anything like that."

A spokesman for PGW, Avrom Steinbrook, said the company would not provide the Daily News with information on Street's account or any other customer's account.

"The only thing I can say to you about Mr. Street's account is, whatever is in the filing (in bankruptcy court), you can count on it being correct," Steinbrook said.

He declined to explain how a customer could build up a $5,000 debt and not have his gas shut off.

"In order to explain how that could occur, I would have to disclose to you information about his (Street's) account, which I really cannot do," Steinbrook said.

Asked if PGW had shown preferential treatment to Street, Steinbrook replied, "Not to my knowledge."

Steinbrook said PGW's normal policy allows customers at least 81 days to pay bills before a shutoff could occur, and up to the moment of shutoff, he said, the company tries to negotiate repayment agreements to avoid turning off the gas.

In addition, he said utility policy in the winter is not to turn off residential gas service when temperatures are predicted to drop below freezing or when young children or senior citizens live in the house.

Street, chairman of Council's Appropriations Committee and a major influence on the city's tax structure and budgets, filed for personal bankruptcy May 14.

His filing stated it was the third time he has filed for bankruptcy in the past 18 years. A 1969 bankruptcy petition was granted, discharging his debts at that time, but a 1982 bankruptcy filing was dismissed in 1986. Street described his latest filing as "essentially the same bankruptcy" he filed for five years ago, and his petition attempts to discharge some of the same debts.

Street earns $40,000 a year as a councilman, but listed his income as $60,000 on his 1986 bankruptcy petition. He has worked in the past for a private law firm.

By filing for bankruptcy, Street protected himself from losing gas service as of May 14, 1987, but based on the court records there was no bankruptcy protection from May 1986 to May 1987.

Besides the amount claimed by PGW, other creditors who were listed by Street or who filed their own claims include:

* The Internal Revenue Service, which says he owes $9,662 in federal income taxes from 1978 and 1985.

* The Uptown Colored Unit of Jehovah's Witnesses, which holds an $18,000 m mortgage on Street's 15th Street property.

* The city, which has billed him for $9,200 in water and sewer charges and business taxes and an "undetermined" amount for real estate taxes.

* The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, $8,968 for student loans.

* The state, $1,300 for unpaid income taxes from 1978 through 1982.

* Several unpaid medical bills, an auto repair bill and an $899 bill for ''medical services" from the Wyncote Dog and Cat Hospital.

Street said he and the city have a long-running dispute over the city's tax claims. "I don't owe any of those taxes," he said. "They're just trying to say I owe that."

But he declined to discuss details of any of the disputes.

"I can't allow you to carry me back through all of this," he said. "Why don't you just do what you have to do, write your story, I'll ignore it, people will buy the paper and we'll go on . . . ."

Unpaid gas bills have been a major factor in driving up PGW's gas rates over the past decade. Last year alone, PGW wrote off $22 million worth of uncollectable bills, forcing up rates for paying customers.

Besides setting those rates, the five Gas Commission members set PGW customer service policies, determining how the company will deal with customers who are in arrears.

Street personally has helped to shape those policies.

In 1985, for example, over PGW's objections, he convinced a Gas Commission majority to make all delinquent customers, regardless of income, eligible for a "5 and 2" program that allows delinquents to keep their gas service by putting down 5 percent of their unpaid bills and agreeing to pay 2 percent more each month in addition to their current bills.

For those customers who took advantage of the program and kept making payments, half of their balances were eventually forgiven. Later, the program was tied to federal poverty standards and limited to low-income customers.

Asked this week if there was any conflict of interest in his serving on the Gas Commission while owing or disputing a large amount with the gas company, Street replied, "I don't think it's a conflict." He added that he had not participated in the "5 and 2" program.

City Controller Joseph C. Vignola, commission chairman, said he did not see a conflict in Street's unpaid gas bills either.

"It is my understanding that most of the gas commissioners are customers of PGW," Vignola said. "I don't think it (PGW's arrearage claim) makes it any difference."

The Daily News reported in 1985 that Street and his estranged wife had received $1,638 in "credits" on their residential gas bills. PGW records obtained by the Daily News indicated that, prior to receiving the credits, the Streets owed the gas company $2,351.

At the time, Street denied he had received preferential treatment. He said the credits were tied to a long-running billing dispute that at one point had PGW charging him $7,000 for gas usage in a single month.

Vignola pledged then that he would investigate PGW's treatment of Street and other prominent politicians included on a secret "VIP list" maintained by the gas company.

But PGW refused to turn over customer account records to Vignola, and the city controller backed down from challenging the company.

"We got stymied at every door and the controller's office never pursued it," Vignola said this week. "If I had to get a subpoena to get the records, I would have had to hire outside counsel, and I did not want to spend the taxpayers' money on that."

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