Monday, May 07, 2007

HEFPA - Utility Deposit Issues Resurface

The General Rule : No Deposits
The Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA) is New York’s landmark bill of rights for New York utility consumers. The legislative purpose is to advance the advance the state policy of continuous service by eliminating unreasonable utility service qualifications or delays in order to advance the public interest and preserve the general health and welfare. With the passage in 1981 of HEFPA, utility deposit requirements as a condition of service for New York consumers were generally abolished for most current customers and new applicants for electric and natural gas service. Customers of large private water utilities were subsequently given HEFPA protection in 1986.

The exceptions to the general rule that deposits are not required are quite narrow. Nevertheless, utilities from time to time attempt to broaden the scope of the exceptions. PULP successfully opposed major Niagara Mohawk d/b/a/ National Grid efforts to broaden deposit requirements in 2003 - 2004.

The“Delinquent” Customer Exception
HEFPA allows a utility to demand a deposit from a “delinquent” customer, which PSC regulations define to include a current customer (i) who “accumulates two consecutive months of arrears without making reasonable payment” as defined by the PSC, or (ii) whose service was terminated within the past six months for nonpayment.

In contrast, a new applicant with old arrears from a prior account in his or her name must be provided service if the arrears are paid or if the applicant signs a deferred payment agreement to pay back the arrears over time along with payment of bills for current service, with terms of the agreement negotiable based on the customer’s financial circumstances.

The Seasonal and Short Term Customer Exception
A utility can require a deposit as a condition of residential service if the applicant for service is a “seasonal” or “short-term” customer. PSC regulations define a seasonal customer as one who “applies for and receives utility service periodically each year, intermittently during the year, or at other irregular intervals.” A short-term customer is “a person who requires service for a specified period of time that does not exceed one year."

PULP recently learned from a local advocate that a utility may be demanding deposits from new customer applicants if, during the application process, applicants cannot state specifically how long they will live at the premises where they are seeking service. Apparently, the utility was deeming such applicants to be seeking only short term service.

Not being able to answer with certainty how long one will reside in a place, however, is far different from the HEFPA standard, which allows deposits when the customer is seeking service for a specified period of time that does not exceed one year.

The PSC Emergency Hotline Provides a Remedy : 1-800-342-3355
Disputes arise continually which affect the provision and continuation of essential utility service. A denial or termination of service can have deadly consequences. See Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low-Income Households.

Recognizing the importance of utility service and the risk of erroneous utility actions, the legislature, when it enacted HEFPA, required the PSC to provide Emergency Hotline Service to residential customers:
The commission shall establish a toll free number, to be attended from nine o`clock a.m. to nine o`clock p.m. each business day, which a residential customer may use to contact a commission designee authorized to order the reconnection, continuation or initiation of residential gas or electric service whenever a reasonable question regarding the circumstances of a termination or refusal of service exists or whenever the health and safety of a person is involved.
PSC regulation 11.21 establishes Emergency Hotline hours from 7:30 AM to 7:30 PM.

In each of the cases mentioned above, when the PSC Emergency Hotline was called for assistance, the hotline directed the utility immediately to provide service without a deposit.

The PSC Emergency Hotline number is 1-800-342-3355.
Note that the PSC Emergency Hotline number is not the PSC Complaint Line. The Complaint Line receives, investigates, and adjudicates customer complaints regarding a wide range of utility service and billing disputes through its formal and informal complaint handling procedures. Complaints may be made in person, by mail, by telephone to 1-800-342-3377 or by email through the PSC website complaint page.

Please visit PULP's website Help Center or contact PULP if you have questions.

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