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Petition asks state to investigate BGE service in Howard

Frustration with power reliability in Howard County has officially risen beyond the county level.

A petition signed by more than 300 county residents asking for an official investigation intoBaltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s service in the county was recently submitted to the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates public utilities in the state and conducts investigations when warranted.

The petition reiterates recent complaints from residents and county officials, including County Executive Ken Ulman, that smaller pockets of homes all across the county have long experienced chronic power outages and blips, which the residents say are due to a lack of maintenance by BGE.

Cathy Eshmont, founder of the group Reliability4HOCO, which collected the signatures, said she hopes the petition will force the PSC to hold BGE accountable for the problems.

"I'm hoping for an investigation, a real one, not the Public Service Commission talking to BGE and BGE saying, 'Well, you know, you're right. We should go over there and do some cutting' " of tree limbs near power lines, said Eshmont, whose group has helped connect a network of frustrated residents on Facebook and Twitter.

In the past, officials with BGE have said power is more reliable in Howard than in many other coverage areas in the region. But they also have acknowledged isolated problems in some of the county's older, more wooded neighborhoods, and promised to address them.

The company has held public meetings on reliability in certain neighborhoods in recent months, and has updated equipment in problematic areas. It has also promised to continue to address concerns by identifying causes of outages.

Whether the petition will impact or change that approach remains unclear.

Regina Davis, a PSC spokeswoman, confirmed on Feb. 29 that the commission had received the complaint petition, which was dated Feb. 22.

"We are treating it as a formal complaint, in accordance with the statute," Davis said in an email.

But Davis would not discuss how that process will move forward.

According to the state's public utilities code, the PSC "must conduct an investigation of the matters in a complaint" if the complaint relates to the quality, reliability or price of a utility; is signed by at least 100 customers of a utility company who provide their names and addresses; and is not "voluntarily satisfied" by the utility supplier.

A letter dated Feb. 28 from David Collins, executive secretary of the PSC, to Daniel Gahagan, vice president and general counsel for BGE, informed Gahagan of the complaint filed by Eshmont and directed BGE to "satisfy or answer" the complaint by March 30.

The broad nature of the petition complaint, which cites "chronic reliability problems throughout the county," according to the petition cover letter, makes it difficult to know what efforts by BGE would be satisfactory, Eshmont said.

But she is certain the petition meets its own requirements, she said, in part because the signatures were collected by just four people, who all understood those requirements.

"We were not at shopping centers catching people as they came out," Eshmont said. "We were literally (going) door to door in the hardest hit neighborhoods."

Robert Gould, a BGE spokesman, said BGE already aggressively works to solve reliability issues, but will "certainly work within the PSC process" as it plays out.

"We'll certainly respond and cooperate to the fullest extent with the commission, whatever their needs may be," he said.

Having reliable service is a "win-win" for the company and its customers, Gould said, and BGE is not "dismissive of customer concerns."

The petition cover letter — addressed to PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian and signed by Eshmont on behalf of the "executive committee of Reliability4HOCO" — encourages the PSC to "require regular, on-going, and public reporting of outages, and hold BGE responsible for meeting service delivery standards for all customers."

Citing power problems in at least 15 different communities in the county, it also asks the PSC to "take whatever punitive actions necessary" to get BGE to meet those standards.

At the end of last year, the PSC completed an investigation of Pepco, the Washington region's leading power company, based on complaints about service reliability in areas around Washington that were similar to those made in the petition filed by Eshmont's group.

That investigation, which found Pepco had failed to maintain its power lines, resulted in the PSC fining Pepco $1 million, which the commission said was its largest fine ever and just an initial penalty for the company.

Eshmont said she hopes a similar result will come out of her group's complaint against BGE, and that it will set an example for residents in other counties served by BGE who are also experiencing reliability issues.

"All it takes is one or two or three people to say, 'Nope. I'm not going to let it slide this time. Enough is enough,'" she said.

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