Utility cutoffs delayed

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland regulators ordered the state's utilities yesterday to temporarily delay terminating service to more than 120,000 residential gas and electric customers who are behind on their bills.

Company officials estimated that more than 80,000 Baltimore Gas & Electric customers and 40,000 Pepco customers could have their power shut off April 1, after winter restrictions on terminations are lifted.

Members of the Maryland Public Service Commission staff and others will use the one-week delay to develop payment plans that will be offered to all residential ratepayers. Regulations now require payment plans only for low-income customers, although utilities could negotiate them with anyone. Although companies say they offer alternate plans, consumer advocates say those plans are often too short-term to be successful.

The group will present its findings at an April 7 hearing at the commission's Baltimore offices. The PSC began investigating past-due accounts in January, and extended the inquiry last month to review more than 3,300 complaints filed by consumers about unusually high bills - in some cases double or triple what has been charged in previous years.

Numerous factors, including higher rates, increased usage due to colder weather, length of billing cycles and estimated meter readings have been suggested as reasons for the higher bills, according to the PSC order issued yesterday. Regulators said that recent power rate increases for Maryland customers of up to 10 percent for electricity and 8 percent for natural gas would not have triggered such large bills.

Last week, PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian and utility company executives were called before state legislators, who had received numerous complaints from residents. The high bills have led activists and some lawmakers to call for re-regulating the state's power markets.

BGE and Pepco spokesmen said company officials were still studying the order yesterday and could not comment specifically about it.

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