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Kevin Hunt - The Bottom Line
The Bottom Line
5:32 PM EDT, August 13, 2012
Of all the secrets buried beneath the earth on Sir Walter Drive in Cheshire, the last thing Grace Edwards expected to find was an explanation for her unusually high electricity bills.
It wasn't a computer, an extra refrigerator or television, as Connecticut Light & Power had suggested years ago, or a central air-conditioning system or even a whirlpool.
For 25 years, Edwards has been paying for the underground electricity that powers two street lights illuminating a subdivision of maybe half a dozen houses at the end of her street.
Edwards finally received a check for $10,491, and an apology, last Friday from CL&P, a triumph for a woman who says she was told initially by both the utility company and, remarkably, the state agency that regulates utility rates and services that the overbilling was her problem, not theirs.
"CL&P said it was always on the bill and up to me to inform them of the mistake," Edwards says. "I said, 'How could I inform you of something I didn't know about?'"
She later found out she had been paying about $20 a month extra. Until the end, Edwards couldn't break the code of her monthly utility bill that included listings for "9500 Lumen HP Sodium" and "6300 Lumen HP Sodium."
"It has no more relevance to me than any other line items on the bill," she says.
Edwards only became suspicious after a prospective buyer of her home recently requested a history of utility costs. When CL&P emailed her the past statements, she noticed the monthly charges were less than her actual costs. That's when she called CL&P, which told her the difference was the power for the two street lights.
The two street lights?
The builder of the subdivision, who lived in the Sir Walter Drive home before selling it to Edwards and her now-deceased husband, apparently had agreed to pay for the street lights' power. Yet somehow those charges remained after the house was sold and the builder moved to another house on the street.
"I told [CL&P] it was their mistake for putting the charges on the wrong account," says Edwards, "and that I should have been told about them when I called to arrange for service for the house 25 years ago. It was CL&P's mistake not to transfer the fee to the builder's new billing when he moved to another address."
CL&P agreed to remove the lights from Edwards' bill but refused to reimburse her, suggesting she negotiate with the town of Cheshire. Edwards then contacted the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, or PURA, hoping for a sympathetic ear and a resolution.
"They were very rude," Edwards says. "I get this customer-service representative who says, 'It's up to you to figure it out.' I said, 'How would I be able to figure it out? It's just embedded in the bill.'"
That's not how PURA remembers it.
"It is standard practice for staff of the PURA Consumer Services Unit to advise callers that it is best if they first attempt to resolve any disputes directly with the utility company before PURA staff gets involved," says spokesman Dennis Schain. "We understand the frustration Ms. Edwards must have been feeling and regret if she found that dismissive in any way."
That day, Edwards contacted both the Office of Consumer Counsel, an independent state agency that represents customers of the state's utility companies, and The Bottom Line. Taren O'Connor, the OCC's consumer information representative, contacted PURA. The Bottom Line contacted CL&P, which promised it would investigate. It did and the utility found itself at fault.
"Mrs. Edwards received service that is below our standards and we have apologized to her for the error and the inconvenience," says CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross.
O'Connor says CL&P has a clear obligation in such cases.
"There are rules and regulations in place that say if there's an unwarranted charge and you can prove that, then you get reimbursed," O'Connor says.
The law, indeed, is on the consumer's side: Look for Sec. 16-11-110 of the state's General Statutes under "Adjustment of bills."
Edwards says she learned how to pursue an overbilling charge after reading a Bottom Line column from last November about a Berlin condo owner who received $12,000 from CL&P in reimbursements and interest after discovering he had been paying for his neighbor's electricity the past 10 years.
Call the utility company first. Then contact PURA at 1-800-382-4586 or http://www.ct.gov/dpuc. The Office of Consumer Counsel is usually involved in judicial and legislative matters, but it's also a potential resource. Call 860-827-2900 or visit http://www.ct.gov/occ.
Because Edwards didn't give up, she now has a check for $10,491.21, about $5,800 that she paid and the rest interest. Unfortunately, it took 25 years.
"You trust when you call and someone is pulling up your history and your bills," says O'Connor, "you think that they might say, 'Oh, wait a minute. Did you realize you are paying for two street lights?' Because I'm guessing that is not normal."
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