Did you hear the one about BGE's too-low bill?

The Baltimore Sun

Frank Margolis doesn't think his Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. bill is nearly steep enough.

Intent on finding a way to pay the utility more than what he is billed every month, the 70-year-old professor e-mailed me a few weeks ago for help.

This is not a request I get every day.

Margolis was chatting recently with a colleague who was complaining bitterly about utility bills that topped $400 to $500 a month. Margolis went home to dig out his own June statement - $111.

Upon closer examination, Margolis noticed that BGE had failed to charge him at all for the amount of electricity he used. Worse, when Margolis dug up prior bills, he found that not only did it fail to charge him for electricity supply this year, but BGE also failed to charge him for any power use as far back, possibly, as 2004.

Now, many might choose to ignore this seemingly excellent error, given that BGE households are paying about 80 percent more for electricity than they were three years ago. But Margolis - rightfully so, I might add - decided that he wanted no BGE power shock from out of the blue.

"I know it's bizarre," Margolis said. "I was sure if I called BGE, I would have gotten somebody who wouldn't know what was going on or wouldn't know what to do with me. Or they'd do something crazy like turn off my electricity. So I thought you could help."

"It's dumb," Margolis said, sheepishly explaining his role in the slip-up. "But when the bill comes in, like a lot of bills, I pay it and drop it in the drawer. I always check my credit card bill, but I figure with my utility bill, I'm not going to go out and check the meter. So I didn't pay attention to it."

Margolis has pledged to stop such neglect immediately.

I took a look at Margolis' bills and saw that BGE was, indeed, charging him for the amount of gas used, gas delivery services, electricity delivery service and state and local taxes and surcharges. But nowhere was there a charge for the number of electric kilowatt hours used.

"I'm worried," Margolis said. "My biggest concern isn't even paying whatever the bill would be; I'm more worried they will make me pay penalties and fees, too."

I placed calls to BGE, the Office of the People's Counsel (OPC) and the Public Service Commission (PSC).

BGE immediately launched an investigation.

The calls to the OPC, which represents the interest of consumers in utility matters, and the PSC, which regulates utilities, eased my concerns just a little. Both pointed me to the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR).

"We get a couple of these cases every year," said Theresa V. Czarski, deputy People's Counsel.

Two sets of rules could apply.

In the first scenario when you are undercharged, regulations allow electric companies to go back 12 months prior to when the error was discovered to retroactively bill you for power used. If the utility can prove the error occurred for longer than 12 months, it must seek permission from the PSC to retroactively charge you for longer than that, but for no more than three years.

If the total amount of the undercharge adds up to more than 35 percent of your average monthly bill during the preceding three months, regulations say the utility must offer you a payment plan. The utility also cannot charge you interest on the amount owed.

You are then given 20 days notice and a chance to respond. That would allow you to list reasons why your power usage might have changed over that period of time, including having fewer people living in your home, switching from electric heat to gas heat or abnormal weather conditions.

I braced Margolis for the fact that he could owe up to three years of power supply charges.

Say you use an average of 800 to 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a month. BGE residential power rates are 15.364 cents per kilowatt hours now, so the amount owed for the first five months of this year could equal several hundred dollars.

We didn't fret for long.

BGE completed its investigation within days and informed us that Margolis' malfunctioning meter was discovered about a week before I contacted the company March 30. BGE technicians had already swapped out the Margolis' time-of-use meter - which captures the time of day that power is used to charge customers a slightly lower price during nonpeak hours - for a new one May 23.

"It is an issue with our computer system software, which flags accounts where the meter is either indicating use that is very low or zero usage," said spokesman Kelly Shanefelter. "We're in the process of addressing this, but we don't believe it's a widespread problem. It's related only to TOU meters.

"In this particular case, our records indicate that his usage was below normal for more than two years," Shanefelter said about BGE's investigation. "His meter reading fluctuated from minimal use to none."

That might sound like Margolis is doomed, but he can thank the energy gods for that stroke of luck.

Why? Because that minimal reading his meter was logging brings us to the second scenario covered under COMAR, which says: "Whenever a meter is found to be more than 2 percent slow, the utility may bill the customer one-half of the unbilled error for a period of 12 months, unless the meter has been tested within that 12-month period, in which event the utility may bill the customer one-half the unbilled error for the period since the meter was last tested."

In simple language, that means that once BGE discovered the error and then determined that the meter was slow, the law permits BGE to collect just half of what he owed for the previous 12 months, Shanefelter said. The law prevents BGE from seeking more than that, she added.

"We can only bill him for the prior six months," Shanefelter said.

We still don't know exactly what the final tally will be, but Shanefelter said, "We're going to monitor his use for the next several months to come up with a bill that is based on his actual usage."

So instead of thousands, Margolis is probably just facing a payback charge of several hundred dollars.

"We were prepared to pay what we thought we owed," Margolis said, happily. "But that's just fine by us."


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