KIYC: NJ BPU failed to adequately investigate JCP&L complaints

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The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities failed to adequately investigate complaints by consumers who were pressured by Jersey Central Power and Light into paying utility bills that were apparently not their responsibility, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds. The agency, which insists it takes every complaint seriously, faces a number of challenges, including a heavy workload and complainants who may omit important facts.

Last summer, JCP&L shut off Angela O’Neil’s power because of a $10,000 bill owed by her late father. JCP&L kept the power off even after O’Neil’s attorney, Raymond Osterbye, notified the utility in writing that O’Neil had only lived with her father during the last five months of his life, not when the vast majority of the bill had been accrued.

The Board of Public Utilities says based on O’Neil’s story, she should only be responsible for the months that she actually lived with her parents, JCP&L’s tariff authority only allows it to disconnect or refuse service if members of “substantially the same household” place accounts in different names “for the purposes of circumventing a debt.”

PART 1 - KIYC: JCP&L customers say company is strong-arming them to pay fees

But that’s not the conclusion the agency ruled when it actually heard O’Neil’s complaint. Then, BPU sided with JCP&L, steering O’Neil into a payment plan which required her to pay off the full balance.

And O’Neil is not alone. Since 2015, dozens of customers have complained to BPU that JCP&L abused its power by disconnecting or threatening to disconnect service unless they paid large utility bills for which they were not legally responsible. Kane In Your Corner finds in a number of those cases, BPU failed to conduct an adequate investigation before siding with the utility. 

Judy and Steve Krug say they were caught by surprise when their power was shut off without warning in November 2016. JCP&L transferred a balance of approximately $7,000 to their bill. The Krugs say they had no idea whose balance it was, because JCP&L wouldn’t tell them.  “They would just say ‘It’s fraud’,” Judy Krug remembers. “I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ And they would say, ‘We can’t talk about it because it’s fraud.’”

When the Krug’s filed a complaint with BPU, the agency also failed to find out whose bill had been transferred, or why JCP&L thought the Krugs were responsible. It simply noted JCP&L’s response, that the case was a “revenue protection investigation,” and that the Krugs had already paid some money. It closed the case, declaring the Krugs “partially satisfied.” BPU points out that the Krugs’s initial complaint inexplicably fails to mention that JCP&L wouldn’t explain the charges.

Michael Anderson and his roommates were literally kept in the dark over a $5,000 bill belonging to Anderson’s late father. BPU backed JCP&L. It now admits it should not have. “Since the roommates were not there at the old address where the father was, I would argue that no, it was not, in fact, the same household,” says Eric Hartsfield, BPU’s Director of Customer Service.

BPU also allowed JCP&L to stretch the definition of “substantially the same household”. In one case, they upheld JCP&L’s decision to hold a man was responsible for his mother-in-law’s bill, on the grounds that his wife had once lived with her mother. In another, they allowed JCP&L to keep a debt on a customer’s record based on the utility’s explanation that “(the first person’s) husband is connected to the home (the second person) is purchasing.”   

Hartsfield says when BPU falls short, it isn’t for lack of effort. His staff deals with a staggering workload: 11 people fielding approximately 135,000 complaints a year. “It’s almost like a MASH unit,” he says. “Quick – let’s see how we can resolve this, move on to the next case.”

If you want to file a complaint about your utility company, Kane In Your Corner advises emailing instead of calling, so you gain more control over the written record. Also, be specific. Actually saying “I never lived in that house” or “the utility company is refusing to tell me who’s bill it transferred” will help BPU size up a situation. And don’t give up; if you don’t like BPU’s first answer, call back and ask them to reopen the case. If that doesn’t work, you can file an appeal and have it heard by an Administrative Law Judge.

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