Three Seattle City Light customers went to the mat with the utility over their astoundingly high bills. The answers they got left them a bit less than happy.
It can get problematic, if you’re a public utility — say, Seattle City Light — and find yourself dealing with irate customers who don’t get fazed easily.
Customers who feel they’ve been overcharged, customers who talk about one-hour hold times with customer service, customers who think the explanations given for their bills is voodoo economics.
These customers, well, they persist.
Parts of these stories might have a very familiar ring to some of you.
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For example, in Case No. 1, we have Dr. Rena Patel, a physician at Harborview Medical Center. Her specialty is infectious diseases; specifically, HIV. She knows how to deal with vast amounts of data that might overwhelm the rest of us.
She and her husband, Jim Andrews, also a doctor, pay the utility bills on their Seward Park home on time and they don’t run their electricity to the hilt.
So Patel tried to figure out her astoundingly high Seattle City Light bill this past December for $2,415.
In Case No. 2, we have Matt Feldmeyer, an architect who works for the Renton School District overseeing construction. He knows how to review pricing data because that’s what he does on a regular basis.
Then he tried to figure out his astoundingly high, $927 Seattle City Light bill at his family’s Greenwood home this past November, when previous bills were in the $50 range.
In Case No. 3, we have Scott Feldman, a health-company financial director, who in the first week of January found an electric bill for $2,253.73 for the Columbia City home he and his girlfriend moved into in August.
They don’t have electric heat and don’t use air conditioning. In their previous separate residences, they were the type of very thrifty electricity users who’d have electric bills of maybe $50 in each two-month cycle.
Feldman says he was on autopay with a credit card and managed to have the $2,253.73 charge reversed. He says that in talking to customer service, he was told at one point it would have taken nine to 10 months to get a refund.
“I’m in a position in which I can absorb that,” says Feldman. “I also know how to problem-solve and I know my rights. I can well imagine a large percentage of the population don’t have my understanding of resources and could be drastically harmed by such an error — bounced checks, missed payments such as rent, ability to pay to standard daily needs like food.”
He says that over a three-day period, he was willing to stay on hold with the utility for three hours.
Feldman, like Patel and Feldmeyer, also were willing to write emails to the mayor, to City Council members and the media.
They knew to include smartphone images of their bills, and kept copies of emails from the utility.
Feldman took a picture of his RingCentral app that showed one of his hold times — for 1 hour, 5 minutes and 53 seconds.
Patel and Feldmeyer took pictures of gates with easy-open latches to show a meter reader could have gone in.
Patel became a neighborhood activist of sorts. She posted about her City Light encounter on NextDoor:
“Hi neighbors … In Aug. 2016, we moved into a new home and over the next few billing cycles noted that our electric bill was 3-5 times higher than our previous home. So after a few more months of trying to figure this out, with some inside help from (a Seattle City Light) staff member, we realized that our bills were based on ESTIMATED meter reads (noted by an asterisk on your bill).
“ … But perhaps a little more public outcry might get SCL leaders to better manage their organization. I just learned that SCL leaders/executives, including Kelly Enright (director of City Light’s customer care division) and Jim Baggs (the utility’s interim CEO and its general manager), are some of the highest paid city employees (Enright earned $195,000 in 2016; Baggs earned $265,000)!!! … Thanks, Rena.”
The responses from her neighbors started coming in:
“Thank you so much for posting. My husband and I about fell out when we got our 1500 bill. Our bill was never this high in the 40 plus years we lived in our home here.”
Let’s pause now for an appropriate quote from the classic 1967 Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke.”
Seattle City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen responds with these points:
There can be a high bill because in some cycles, the readings were estimated and not done in person by a meter reader. “Maybe they couldn’t get into the backyard to manually read the meter because the gate was locked or because of a dog, maybe the meter reader was sick, maybe there was bad weather and the meter reader couldn’t complete his route,” he says.
And perhaps that estimate was low. Then, when at a later date, there was an accurate in-person reading of the meter, City Light billed for the underestimated amount. “State law does not allow us to write off a high bill,” says Thomsen.
“It’s been a challenge” to set up accounts for people moving into new residences and people moving out of residences, says Thomsen. “Fall has always been the busiest time of the year with UW students coming back to school after the summer break. We’re also one of the fastest growing cities in the country.”
He says that City Light actually is doing pretty well. “Out of 2,867,911 bills we produced in 2017, there were 25,738 meter reading errors that caused a negative consumption error. That’s about 1 percent of all reads.”
And, says Thomsen, the problem of estimated readings will go away once City Light finishes installing by the end of 2018 some 420,000 to 430,000 digital meter readers. It’s already installed 80,000 of them, he says, and they send reads six times a day.
The new meters will mean that the 51 meter readers employed by the city at $22.23 to $26.18 an hour will be out of jobs. “Some of their motivation has lagged,” says Thomsen.
Oh, and there also has been that problem with people learning a new, $85 million computer billing system.
Let’s say that, as was the case with overbilling for Patel on her Seward Park home, it was based on an estimated read that wasn’t correct.
Then let’s say that when there was a correct meter read, it showed her home was using “a negative amount of consumption.”
Since that’s impossible, the new billing system then goes into a HAL mode and kicks out that bad read, “and starts to generate an estimated bill,” and things just go haywire.
Fans of City Light might recall that it, and Seattle Public Utilities, in 2016 launched a new billing system.
It went $43 million over budget for a total of $85 million.
In explaining that $43 million overrun, the city auditor put together a 19-page report.
The auditor said this cone, which comes with its own graphic, is “the tendency for project cost estimates to be widely variable at the beginning of a project and generally become more certain over time.”
In other words, nobody knew what the new billing system would end up costing.
City Light now says it reduced Feldmeyer’s bill by $177 from the initial $927.
It says Patel now has a $312.56 credit.
It has sent Feldman an email that his power will not be shut off for the next six months “due to inaccurate billing.”
For some reason, these three customers are not jumping up and down in joy.