community-based, non-corporate, participatory media

About Contact Us Policies Mailing Lists Radio Video Publish! Calendar Search

View article without comments

Pennsylvania initiates a vicious attack on the poor
by stephen donahue Thursday, Jul. 21, 2005 at 11:30 AM

Four dead so far thanks to dirty new law passed by the PA General Assembly and signed by Gov. Rendell.

Legislative acts which defy common decency are often carried out by politicians under the cover of darkness. Recently for example lawmakers waited until the wee hours of the morning on the last day of the spring session to pass themselves a big fat pay raise. But much worse than this was an act done by the state legislature a few months earlier. On November 19, 2004 in the confusion and hazy darkness of the last day of a lame duck session the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 677, a.k.a. “The Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act.”

At the expressed request of lobbyists from the Energy Association of Pennsylvania and other gas and electric providers this bill, now simply referred to as Chapter14 was passed in near secrecy and with absolutely no public comment.

Why did the fat cat gas and electric interests want no public comment? Why such a veil of secrecy? Well they knew that the public might be outraged to hear about a new state law that would make it easy as hell for them to cut off people’s gas and electricity even in the cold of mid winter. Before Chapter 14 the PA Public Utility Commission (PUC) prevented most winter time utility shut offs. The idea behind this was to prevent people from freezing to death in their homes. Not any more. Now state law makers who enjoy a compensation package worth well over $100 thousand a year are telling low wage earners to pay up or risk freezing.

Under the provisions of Chapter 14 utilities can cut service without PUC approval during the winter time to customers whose annual income is 2.5 times the federal poverty level. For those who don’t know, 2.5 times the federal poverty level is not a lot of dough. People earning that kind of money can suffer a lot when some unforeseen event like serious illness comes to their household.

So how has this played out? The Pennsylvania Electric Company (Penelec) which operates in parts of central PA increased its terminations by 164 % between January and April of 2005. On May 11, 2005 Penelec cut off service to a household in Hastings, PA which is a small town in rural Cambria County. On May 14 a candle being used in the house started a fire which destroyed the home and killed four who lived there including three children. Oh well, that is four less “deadbeats” the utility has to carry.

The award for service cut offs however goes to Equitable Gas Company of western PA. During the first four months of 2004, Equitable Gas cut service to two (2) households. During the first four months of 2005 they did the same to 3,287 households for a 16,425% increase!

Easy service cut offs are not the only atrocity provided for by Chapter 14. Before Chapter 14 became law the PUC often acted to mediate payment plans between low income customers and the electric and gas companies. Not any more however as the PUC is forbidden to negotiate payment plans for households that earn 1.5 times the federal poverty level and less. That is right less.

As a result of this provision since the start of 2005 the PUC has turned away over 19,000 people asking for negotiated payment plans with their utility companies. In the first several months of 2004 the PUC turned away 1,700 people.

Since Chapter 14 became the law in PA, many thousands have had to deal with an extra financial hardship. Thousands of others have lost their gas and electric service and so far four people have died as a direct result of this new law. The utility companies and their lobbyists on the other hand are as happy as pigs in slop about this new law. They are bragging about no longer having to carry “deadbeats.”

By going along with the greedy gas and electric companies and passing this heartless law our state legislators and Governor Rendell merit total contempt. The secretive and undemocratic process used to pass this legislation indicates that they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Our state law makers are a bunch of cowards.

Demand the repeal of Chapter 14, “The Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act.” It is undemocratic and it is a vicious attack on the poor and low income residents of this so called commonwealth.

Thanks to The Patriot News (Harrisburg) and to reporter David DeKok for the specifics contained in this article. The opinions however are all mine.

I am outraged
by Samantha Monday, Jul. 25, 2005 at 10:07 AM

I am outraged! The passing of this legislation just reinforces the attitude that many politicians/lawmakers, and utility companies and other corporate service providers have towards the poor. In my opinion, utilities companies and lawmakers figure that they can get away with passing such heinous measures and no one will care, because ultimately, no one in this country cares about the poor. It is sad. I think that the progressive community should focus more on poverty and working labor.

by i Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2005 at 4:02 PM

I notice you failed to actually mention that 2.5 times the poverty line amounts to more than $47,500 a year. Hardly 'attacking the poor'.

by PJD Thursday, Jul. 28, 2005 at 12:09 PM

What is the time basis for the 2.5 x poverty level? The most recent quarter's earnings? Previous-year's tax return? Previous five years? I bet it is something closer to the latter two. While it may not happen in the old Horatio Alger books, in the real world a family may earn 50K one year, (not a huge sum) then through (usually) a medical crisis and loss of employment (the former usually causing the latter) be nearly destitute the next. Yes, it happens.

by i Thursday, Jul. 28, 2005 at 2:56 PM

No wonder the author of this article didn't link to the actual act itself, then anyone could see that they were just spouting hysterical bullshit. This act specifically addresses exemptions for people whose income had been reduced due to serious illness amongst other things.

Just my opinion but I'd LOVE to be making $50K in Pittsburgh.

response to i
by stephen donahue Thursday, Jul. 28, 2005 at 4:20 PM

i figured that any idiot could find the legislation. For an individual 2.5 times the threshold is $23,275. That is not too bad unless something happens.

The fact that since this law was passed:

• At least five people have died as a result of service shut-off related tragedies
• There has been a dramatic increase in the number of water shut-offs.
• More than 20,000 customers who contacted the PUC for assistance were immediately turned away.
• Medical Certification procedures and the protections they provide are in disarray.
• Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands have been subject to unaffordable deposit and payment arrangements.

Speaks for itself. Now Gov. Rendell is getting worried and some PA legislators who has supported this bill and starting an inquiry.

So, right wing troll. I hope that this winter you got no heat, hot water, or electricity. You cna handle it tough guy

additional response to i...
by PJD Friday, Jul. 29, 2005 at 3:48 PM

Your cited document PUC is so vague it give no useful information that I can determine except that the utilities are in control and can do whatever they want. I only have time to point out the most glaring things:

The basis for documenting low-income status, (which is only 1.5 x poverty level in Philly!) and the required documents, is completely undefined and is no doubt completely left up to the utility. Likewise regarding where to send the medical letter - and where is an uninsured person, often dependent only on the ER for care, going to go to get such a letter???

To restore service, the document states, in several places, the consumer must: " the bill and meet any other conditions of the utility company" Sure..and just what are these "any other conditions" they could be anything!!! Send you your teenage daughter to give Equitable Gas's CEO daily blowjobs - anything!

And, to top it off, the whole thing is written in condescending, tone with a 3rd grade vocabulary, I guess they assume this info is for the barely literate poor...Oops! I thought this document was aimed at deadbeat bill-payers perfectly capable of paying their bills! (Also, in this land of equality where everyone starts out with the same tools to get rich, why should vocabulary/education level be assumed to depend on income? -but I digress)

This document makes it clear that the PUC is now for all practical purposes, nonexistent and many people will be left to the whims of the utilities to keep from freezing.

Oh well, the fact that property matters over people under our system will lead to this bills repeal, because this winter, after the tenants have either fled the property or frozen, the pipes will freeze and burst, causing millions of dollars property damage to slumlords property - then they will repoeal this bill in a mute.

by i Saturday, Jul. 30, 2005 at 11:24 AM

"And, to top it off, the whole thing is written in condescending, tone with a 3rd grade vocabulary.."

And yet you still couldn't figure it out. And of course neither you nor the author has posted a single link supporting any of your so called facts. All Mr Donahue can do is wish ill will on me for daring to disagree with his opinion.

For instance I don't question whether or not 4 people died tragically when a fire was caused by a lit candle. I'm questioning what are all the facts in this specific case and unlike others I'm not willing to accept Donahue's histrionics as anything other than an emotional rant against public utilities.

Shut-off for a bill of $66.24!
by Responsible Utility Customer Tuesday, Aug. 09, 2005 at 10:43 PM

Our family of four just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime vacation cruise of the Mediterranean. Last Summer we ran a credit with Pennsylvania American Water Company and therefore have not derogatory credit with the utility. This year we paid our bill prior to leaving and returned to one waiting bill and one bill just arrived. Together they totalled $66.24. Before I could pay our bills this Friday, our water was shut-off today (Tuesday). We followed the instructions on the ONLY notice we got (which was a "your water has been shut-off notice") and paid an additional $30.00 fee to have the water turned back on. It is more than 12 hours later and we still have no water and were informed they have 72 hours to do so.

Today was the first time I learned of this new law and am not embarrassed to tell my friends and neighbors what happened to us.

For those of you who suggest I set-up on-line bill pay before leaving on holiday, save your breath... we're not all comfortable with that. I hope you never, ever, ever miss paying a single bill and lose your utility for days over $66.24.

Complain to PUC
by complained Tuesday, Aug. 09, 2005 at 11:29 PM

Sounds like a complaint to the Public Utilities Commission is in order.

gives you the 800-numbers to call for different kinds of utility complaints.

FYI: if one is facing termination of a utility and is able to complain beforehand, the process of filing a complaint will generally put a stay on the termination while the PUC investigates. The result of the investigation is often a new payment plan for the customer which the utility is bound to observe, even if they were unwilling to make arrangements with the customer directly.

not any more
by sd Friday, Aug. 12, 2005 at 2:47 PM

The old law "Chapter 56" allowed the PUC to mediate second payment plans for utility customers who found that they were unable to meet payments. This new law no longer allows that! Since the start of 2005 the PUC has turned away over 19,000 people who came to them for help in preventing a utility service cut off. Indeed, one of the main reasons for this new bill was to make the PUC less of a player in customer and utility company disputes.

A letter i got today from State Senator Jay Costa says that this new bill has indeed, "GONE TOO FAR."

If you get a cut off notice, yes indeed contact the PUC and your local state law makers and the office of the Governor. Cut offs have increased by the tens of thousands in just the past 6 months and these law makers have got to hear from every constituent who is getting cut off.


(In)Equitable Gas screwing anyone else?
by Shaun Brown Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2005 at 2:13 PM

Has anyone else out there recently been the victim of a meter reading mistake by Equitable which resulted in an amazing bill? My roommates and I were recently, and I find it hard to believe it isn't more common - we have currently filed an appeal to PUC's decision and are awaiting the next (drawn out) step, we'd like to know if anyone else has had a similar case and how it worked out.

In a nutshell: this March we recieved our regular monthly bill, with a total of around $1440 in the "amount owed" line. Under "comments", it simply said "We have noticed an increase in your gas usage this month", etc. When we called EG, we were told that they had been accidently mis-estimating our meter, and that the new amount reflected the accumulation of what they should have charged us since October or so. The meter had been read by a gas company employee at least twice since October, and the estimates were based on their readings and not our own call-ins or anything. They sent out a guy to check that the meter was working after we called, and he said their numbers were indeed correct. The other thing they did when we called was to track down the previous tenant, because we explained that the bills were consistent for that house for the last three years according to the previous tenant and a current roommate who had lived there for a year longer than us (two years now). So, without any obvious difference in bill amounts, we hadn't imagined anything was wrong and paid those amounts on time every month. Equitable proceeded to dig up the previous tenant's records after we mentioned this, and sent her a bill for around $3000 for the same stated reason as our bill. It went immediatly to a collection agency (even though, when the gas account switched over to us in October, Equitable initially refunded the same customer $150 in accidental overcharges--?). We were not, fortunately, turned away by PUC, perhaps because of the $$$ amount of our situation. However we were also not allowed by any representative we spoke to, to bring up the facts of the case. They would only tell us we could file a formal complaint. Apparently this means they review the numbers as the gas company gives them and then tell you you're wrong. I say this out of obvious bitterness, since to the PUC, there didn't seem to be any question that we were responsible for Equitable's mistake, hands down. PUC asked us nothing, and then only reviewed the case from EG's side, it seems. We were offered the option of signing up for some sort of payment mediation, but we appealed the decision instead because we still have not had a chance to actually state our side of the case, only file a review of the numbers. I was only able to state our case on the appeal paperwork, where they give you a chance to write it out. PUC states that utlity companies are only responsible for reading their meters once every twelve months (!), but if those readings themselves, made by company employees and then used as the basis for future estimates are themselves grossly misread (in our case for a total of three years!), are consumers responsible?

Sorry for the long-winded post, but the situation seems absurd to us and to our friend/former tenant who is in collection now and still awaiting word from PUC on her initial complaint. Has anyone else been slapped with incredible bills based on mistakes the company has made? It would help us out a lot to know how and what happened.

Middle Ground
by Raul Kabinza Friday, Aug. 26, 2005 at 3:39 PM

I attended a class in 1996 that taught how people scam utilities. I was surprised that their methods worked under the old law. That is, for less than $300 per year, a person could have all utiltiies all year long and never get shut off.

Additionally, I have seen the waste of energy every winter when I drive past public housing and see all those open windows. Who do you think pays for this waste?

The new legislations DOES take into account people's incomes and any sunstantial reduction of such.

We need to simply check on seniors who haven't responded to mailings to ensure that they do not get shut of. The rest of the fraudulent consumers can pay or leave.

had enough!!
by dianne Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005 at 4:20 PM
t2percent@comcast 412-466-3857 406 catherine st.duquesnePA

I was a budget paying gas coustomer of equitable gas for years and something went awfully wrong my family and i went on vacation thi past summer to come home with our gas shut off well i was shocked because i Knew we paid before leaving,so i call the gas company and they admit it was their fault and service was restored next month a termination letter came out and we thought to ourseves another mistake so we ignored it,low and behold they cut our gas off again,so i call back to ask why and they say you because of getting terminated last week go t kicked off the budget and i say well how would i have known to get back restored on the budget if know one metioned and it was because of you i was terminated in the first place so my husband calls puc a couple weeks latter i see a bill from equitable gas for 2999.00.and no one can tell me where this balance came from,years ago like 10yrs ago we got excepted in a program from equitable gas that paid off our bill a program nobody could tell us how we got in,i think equitable gas maybe doing things that are illegal.

Are we really surprised Pittsburgh?
by Equitable Gas/Duquesne Light Customer Tuesday, Dec. 06, 2005 at 7:21 PM
N/A N/A Pittsburgh, PA 15203


Are we really surprised by this new assault on the poor and those that slip a little on the path to redemption? I would not classify myself as poor or underprivileged, I am a young-white-male in good health, but I do have ups and downs - and moments of irresponsibility - on my path through life. Here are some of my observations on the triumvirate the control my access to electricity and natural gas in Pittsburgh:

Duquesne Light (Electric) has a nice customer service center (except there is no place to park) downtown in the Chamber of Commerce building. The employees who face the public are surprisingly pleasant and helpful. Beyond this little cocoon, and the higher you go on the "authority" scale, the less helpful they become. There are even some customer service departments filled mostly with assholes who must get hired/promoted based on their bad attitude. [Angry men with little dicks supervise one whole department.] My theory is that when a customer service employee's only contact with a customer is from behind a telephone, they forget those voices belong to real people. That is the only explanation for how nasty some of the Duquesne Light employees are. Oh, and tying their hands because of "company policy," no matter how insane those policies are, doesn't help.

Equitable (Gas) has become harder and harder to deal with over the past few years and their customer service has taken a militant stance against any customer with special needs. Don't look for compassion or understanding here! They are a good case study in how evil spreads through an organization to even the lowliest employee. I feel sorry for anybody with any humanity still working for this company; they are either in daily pain or life-threatening denial.

The PUC (Pennsylvania Utility Commission) is supposed to be the state government agency protecting the consumer. They work very slowly and thus, even if you are right and have the law on your side, they won't help you fast enough to keep your pipes from freezing or your milk from curdling. (Attrition of complaints through inaction... Dead men tell no tales...) They were more than a paper tiger to the utility companies and they can get things done, but again, unless you have the ability to wait - they are useless! They have also slowly become more "utility friendly" in the past 5 to 10 years. They try to reach a compromise between a customer's complaint and the utility company. In other words, right and wrong don't fit into their calculus, only finding the middle ground. They recognized that the law used to favor the customer (even the deadbeats) over the utility company so they took it upon themselves to organize the public services to balance the playing field - the letter of the law be damned. I only hope they still have enough authority to continue ignoring the letter of the law and balance the playing field by being an advocate for the consumer from now on. Yet, I fear the true power is now in the hands of the utility companies. Don't hold your breath waiting for their "social responsibility" to define fairness and the greater good when dealing with at-risk customers. It's usually their way or the highway. That indifference sometimes sends our neighbors to the morgue.

In the end, the idea that people will die based on the shareholder's interests and the government's (you and me) indifference is nothing new. The present administration of Governor Ed Rendell is an insidious wolf in sheep's clothing. It promotes neither fiscal responsibility nor compassion, only self-aggrandizing deceit. The 21st century U.S. playing field is so tilted against those in need that it takes extra-effort to protect them. Fairness and compassion are ideals that many in our society aspire to uphold. The insidious part is when we close our eyes and allow our communities to remove themselves from responsibility to uphold these values. That is where this country, state and city are right now - Fight back Pittsburgh! Take responsibility!!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year... Resolve to Evolve.

Gas Shutoffs. Flexing our muscles
by Pittsburgher Tuesday, Dec. 06, 2005 at 8:26 PM
N/A N/A Pittsburgh, PA 15203

Here is a story from the Post-Gazette about the utility companies flexing their muscles. (Proving to all of us who's in charge in PA.) They say, "when we make a mistake, sorry, you must pay $50 for service restoration." Oh, unless you write a letter to the newspaper. So, remember, write to your local newspaper, not the PUC silly, when your service is interrupted.

Gas shutoff warnings are serious business
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

By Yvonne Zanos

Q: Dominion Peoples Gas Co. shut off my gas on Nov. 22, not because my bill wasn't paid, but because they couldn't get inside my house to read the meter. I had received a letter telling me my gas would be shut off after Nov. 13, but had three options. I could let them in to read the meter (I work and can't miss work for that), I could mail in my meter reading or call in my meter reading. I called in my meter reading and was told "meter reading accepted." My gas was shut off anyway on the 22nd. They did come out to reconnect the next evening but said I have to pay a $50 reconnect fee. I did everything I was told to and my gas was still shut off. Can they do this?


A: You won't have to pay the $50 reconnect fee, Danielle. Dominion Peoples' Sadist Kroeck waived the fee but wants to remind consumers that inside meters have to be read at least once a year by a meter reader from the gas company. Ms. Kroeck said that's a Public Utility Commission requirement.

What happened in your case may seem extreme, and Dominion refers to it as an isolated incident, but I've heard lots of complaints about the problems with making arrangements to have an inside meter read.

Ms. Kroeck said if you don't make arrangements to let a meter reader inside your home, after five months, a process is set in motion. PUC rules require that you have an actual meter reading, as opposed to an estimated meter reading, every other month. When meters are located inside homes, customers can report their own meter readings, or leave a house key with a neighbor, or try to make arrangements for after-hour or weekend meter readings.

In your case, Dominion Peoples spokeswoman Denise Hughes said, the company had contacted you several times without a response, did accept an October reading by phone, but the November notice was a "we need it now or else" notification. The automated machine may have accepted your call-in meter reading, but that did not qualify to get you off the termination list.

Advice is keep in touch with the utility company once those reading notifications start coming. It is not reasonable to expect a customer to take a day off work for a meter reading. It can be uncomfortable to leave a key for a meter reader, but if you want to be home, fight for an after-hours or weekend appointment.

Equitable Gets Paid
by Pittsburgher Tuesday, Dec. 06, 2005 at 8:53 PM
N/A N/A Pittsburgh, PA 15203

Concerned Citizens and Dollar Energy Fund retore dignity to East Liberty man: Equitable customer shut-off in freezing weather sees service restored.

Friday, December 2, 2005

An advocacy group protested unwarranted utility company customer service shut-offs Thursday, using as an example Equitable Resources Inc.'s termination of service to the home of a city man. However, the company said the customer was not current on his bill. The Allegheny Chapter of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as Acorn, staged the protest outside Equitable's North Shore headquarters on behalf of Calvin Glover of East Liberty. Equitable spokesman Dave Spigelmyer said Glover had not made payments in three months on his gas bill, and had made only three payments out of the last 12 months on a payment plan, 50 percent of which was subsidized by Equitable through its customer assistance program. Glover subsequently applied for and received assistance from the Dollar Energy Fund and had his gas service restored Wednesday.

5907 Penn Avenue, Suite 300
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
fax: 412-441-6317

by Raul Kabinza Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2005 at 12:09 PM

Deadbeats often cry fowl and misrepresent their payment history.

While there are many uneducated and undereducated people who need hand-holding through any process, there are countless scam artists and deadbeats who work diligently to rip off the utilities. But the utilities are a regulated monopoly. Therefore, the costs are passed through to the paying customers - US!

low income programs
by factor Friday, Dec. 09, 2005 at 11:02 PM

The utility companies have low income programs where customer pay 7-10% of gross household income if they fall under the federal poverty guidelines and there are also Dollar Energy Grants, Crisis grants and LIHEAP. That is great for the people who fall within those catergories but the sad part is too many people don't qualify for any help. I see how many people lie about their income,so they can steal the money from the taxpayers. We have seniors who are a dollar above the guidelines who chose to pay their utilities vs buy lifesaving medicine. I am tired of carrying the deadbeat welfare cases, get a job and pay utilities like the rest of America. They deserved to be shut off like any other customer. That is why utilities are so high the people who pay the bills are carrying the welfare deadbeats uncollectable balances. Face facts ask any utility worker they will tell you the truth.

Blame the victims
by stay warm, burn the rich Saturday, Dec. 10, 2005 at 6:47 AM

The utility companies raise the rates because they can. The real deadbeats are the ones profiting from the corporate welfare energy bill, written by geniuses like "kenny boy" lay of enron fame, but o'reilly may have failed to mention that.

Utilities Are Not Profit Centers
by Raul Kabinza Friday, Dec. 16, 2005 at 10:42 AM

Regulated utilities are monopolies, and as such, must negotiate a rate of return on their capitalization. This is opposed to a non-regulated entity, such as most other commercial enterprises that are at market risk and must earn any profits. Utilities are not permitted to profit, and they don't.

Rate increases are generally two-fold: 1) commodity increases as utilities pass through the costs of gas and electricity to their customers [utilities are not permitted to mark up commosities]; and 2) service increases that reflect rising costs of doing business [paying union wages, repairing/replacing aging facilities, adding new service as territory grows]. Both of these increases are scrutinized by public utility commissions and cannot occur without the commissions' permission.

On another note, I find it absurd that Penelec is required to pay $250,000 because two households that incurred tragedies resulting from fires refused to pay their electric bills over several months. Nevertheless, I also sympathize with the families who may have been headed by people who might be seen as irresponsible and unaccountable. Want utilities and don't have the funds? Seek help NOW.

mr r cimino
by robert cimino Monday, Jan. 16, 2006 at 5:27 PM
dont use ; 570 344-3751 921 so webster ave

i don't mind paying for the gas but the fixed charges on my bill are way out of line they don't spend on maintenance, but are charging on my latest bill about $90.00 my gas bill is $428.00. ---- i'm a senior citizen getting $444 in s. security. i want to know why i can't pay just for the gas and maybe a flat fee for the charges also i'm a stroke victim recovering but with the over charges i don't have anything to live on.a reasonable flat fee added should be about $25.00. have one of your PUC PEOPLE CONTACT ME BY PHONE PLEASE SO I CAN DICUSS WITH HIM MY SITUATION AND MAYBE A SOLUTION TO MY PROBLEM

© 2001-2009 Pittsburgh Independent Media Center. Unless otherwise stated by the author, all content is free for non-commercial reuse, reprint, and rebroadcast, on the net and elsewhere. Opinions are those of the contributors and are not endorsed by the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center.
Disclaimer | Privacy