- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Maryland lawmakers Monday became the latest to ask utility companies to extend a deadline for cutting electricity to delinquent customers.

They join officials in Massachusetts, Indiana and elsewhere who have been forced to extend deadlines to accommodate a record number of customers who have fallen behind on their bills, in part as a result of higher rates and the global economic crisis.

Maryland has more than 120,000 customers facing cutoffs after April 1, which marks the end of a winter moratorium on shutoffs for customers, usually three months past due.

Last week, the state’s Public Service Commission extended the deadline “until further notice” so the commission can release a report April 7 on possible solutions for customers behind on their bills.

On Monday, Maryland utility companies’ executives vowed to state lawmakers that they are trying to help customers - and themselves.

“A customer´s meter is our cash register,” said Robert P. Behlke, of the Choptank Electric Cooperative, which serves roughly 50,000 customers on the Eastern Shore. “If we shut off that customer, we are shutting off our cash register.”

Lawmakers said they have been swamped with complaints from confused customers asking why their bills have doubled or even tripled in recent months.

“I´ll explain some of the reasons people´s bills are high, and they just look at me like I have two heads,” said Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the General Assembly’s state electric-service program work group.

She said the cold winter and changes in billing cycles also contributed to the higher bills.

Indiana and Massachusetts regulators have asked companies to extend their winter deadline from March 15 to May 1. In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, recently ordered that the utility companies extend their moratorium from March 31 to April 30.

Doug R. M. Nazarian, chairman of Maryland’s Public Service Commission, said the cutoff extension will be in effect until the commission can issue its report, after which the companies possibly can go through with terminations.

Roughly 84,000 Baltimore Gas & Electric customers could have their electricity shut off after the extended deadline, as well as roughly 42,000 Pepco customers.

Pepco representative Charles Dickerson said roughly 120,000 of the company’s 800,000 Maryland customers have fallen behind on their bills.

The Energy Department could not provide a national number Monday.

In addition, BGE has reported more than $44 million in uncollectible debt in 2008, almost double what was reported in 2007. Pepco recorded about $12.5 million in write-offs in 2008, compared with slightly more than $8 million in 2007.

Company executives said that notices of termination are primarily used as an incentive for a customer to start paying their bills on time, and that most of those who are eligible are not cut off.

They also said that customers should appeal to government-assistance programs to help with bills, but such programs have been swamped with requests for help.

Customers say they’ve done everything possible to be more energy-efficient, but the bills continue to increase.

Pepco customer Paul Hassler, 64, said in the winter of 2003, the energy bills on his two-story Rockville home was roughly $400 a month. He said that by 2009 the payments had increased to $1,259, though he consumed less energy by replacing heat pumps with those said to be more efficient.

“I am no longer going to be able to stay in my house if the electricity costs continue to spiral,” he said. “Pepco blames it on usage. I blame it on Pepco charging whatever they wish.”

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