How the PUC is coping with winter

Posted: January 16, 2006

AS NOTED BY Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services (op-ed, Dec. 30), Old Man Winter is creating a lot of anxiety. While temperatures have moderated, the sting of high utility bills continues to have a chilling effect - especially on families whose budgets were already tight.

High bills combined with low temperatures can send carefully balanced finances into a downward spiral that begins with missed bills and ends with termination notices and shutoffs under a new state law.

The changes to the rules governing utility shutoffs, commonly called Chapter 14, altered the rules concerning cash deposits, reconnection and termination of service, payment arrangements and the filing of termination complaints by consumers. The PUC is charged with implementing this law while protecting the health and safety of all consumers.

As of Dec. 1, more than 21,400 Pennsylvania families were living without use of their central heating system, according to the Public Utility Commission's annual cold weather survey. I join Mr. Stein in his concern for our neediest citizens in not only Philadelphia but statewide.

In response to the survey, I urged the companies to be sensible in their approach in establishing payment arrangements with consumers and reminded them of their obligation to reach reasonable payment terms. While Chapter 14 limits the commission's authority to issue payment agreements, the companies have discretion in establishing payment arrangements.

The consequences of Chapter 14, intended or not, can be very real. The commission has taken a compassionate interpretation of that law while remaining within its confines. The PUC approved so-called "second-chance" payment arrangements determining that consumers can establish one payment arrangement through the commission, regardless of any previous arrangements the consumer may have made with the utility.

The commission also directed PGW to stop charging higher fees than permitted by Chapter 14 to reconnect service and inform residents without service of the proper amounts.

The PUC also seeks to empower consumers through our Prepare Now for Winter campaign and participation in the governor's Stay Warm campaign. These consumer-education campaigns encourage consumers to conserve energy, enroll in budget billing programs and contact their utility immediately if they experience difficulty in paying their bills to find out about utility-provided Consumer Assistance Programs.

This year, our education campaign also urges consumers to know their rights under Chapter 14. The outreach includes efforts to increase awareness of programs available to help low-income consumers pay their utility bills such as the utility Consumer Assistance Programs (CAP) and the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Several utilities are voluntarily participating in the PUC's consumer education efforts. In September, we also directed electric, gas and water utilities to coordinate with the commission, consumer advocates and community organizations to educate Pennsylvanians about the Chapter 14 changes.

The PUC remains on the offensive, working to balance and protect the public interest. We encourage consumers to call their utility if they have problems paying their utility bills. If they are unsatisfied, call the PUC at 1-888-PUC-FACT. We are committed to working with consumers, state and elected officials, advocates and utilities to make certain everyone knows about the tools available to help them weather this energy crisis. *

Wendell F. Holland is chairman of the state Public Utility Commission.

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