Getting a read on fines vs. fees

You can’t be “fined,” but you might be charged a fee. Customers disputing high electricity bills who want CenterPoint Energy to come out and re-read their meters might find themselves paying an extra $6.
In today’s story about Houstonians who continue to wrestle with high power bills that date back to problems stemming from Hurricane Ike, Public Utility Commission of Texas spokesman Terry Hadley said retail electric providers cannot fine customers who request an actual meter read after months of estimated bills.
That much is true.
But once a customer’s meter has been read post-storm, CenterPoint Energy will put through a $6 service charge if the customer requests a re-read and it confirms the original result. CenterPoint distributes electricity to most Houston-area customers, regardless of their retailer provider.
CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon said it is up to each retailer to decide whether to pass along that charge to consumers or eat the cost. Most power companies pass the service charge through.
Al Barrios, vice president of operations with Spark Energy, said all Spark customers who call in requesting a meter read are warned of the potential for a charge.
“It’s our standard response to everybody. We want them to know there’s the potential for a fee,” he said, adding if there’s any ambiguity to the meter read the company sides with the customer.
CenterPoint’s meter readers took on different jobs in the aftermath of Ike, according to Dixon. Because they are familiar with Houston’s terrain, most were deployed as navigators with out-of-town crews of linesmen and tree trimmers who worked to repair the power grid.
Meter reading resumed Oct.13 when a temporary measure that allowed utilities to estimate bills in storm-damaged areas expired. That measure has since been renewed, allowing utilities to estimate bills through the end of the year, but Dixon said CenterPoint is back up to speed on reading meters and does not need to continue estimating electric consumption due to the storm.
Electric bill estimation still occurs frequently even when there hasn’t been a weather event or emergency. But in normal times of operation, Texas utilities generally aren’t allowed to estimate power consumption two months in a row, according to PUC spokesman Hadley.
Pat Hammond, a spokeswoman with Reliant Energy, said that retail electricity provider has seen a 30 percent uptick in customer service phone calls this fall due to hurricane-related billing questions. Reliant is trying to work with as many customers as possible to create payment options in the face of high bills, she said.
“While we certainly understand that CenterPoint had a tremendous undertaking to restore the system after Hurricane Ike, we would like to see meter reading services restored to a normal schedule as quickly as possible. Estimated bills are confusing to customers and can create a burden when the bill comes due. Customers deserve to have an actual meter reading so that they are only billed for what they use,” Hammond said.