Thursday, July 03, 2008

National Grid’s “Grand Plan” May Be Gone, but its “80% Solution” Remains

Back on March 20th, the Commission issued a Declaratory Ruling addressing PULP's challenge on behalf of applicants denied utility service under National Grid’s “Grand Plan". Applicants who owed the company over $1,000 had been required to make a $1,000 down payment in order to have service restored, and those with under $1,000 in arrears were required to pay 100% of the debt -- regardless of the statutory limits of Public Service Law (“PSL”) §31.1 and that deferred payment agreements (“DPAs”) must be negotiable, subject to Commission oversight. The PSC Ruling rejected much of National Grid’s “Grand Plan,” based on the inflexibility of the 100% or $1000 requirements. See PSC Nullifies National Grid's $1,000 "Grand Plan" Requirement for Utility Service.

Still, the Commission but left open the door for National Grid to attempt another end run around one of the most basic Home Energy Fair Practices Act (“HEFPA”) rights: the opportunity for an applicant to obtain service with an agreement to repay “any amounts due” on an old account in installments, with a down payment that does not exceed the statutory limits. Section 31 plainly lays out the process: DPAs must be offered to applicants with down payments of no more than the lesser of 50 percent of the arrears or three months average billing to repay "any amounts due" for service to a prior account in their name.

PULP sought rehearing and clarification of the Ruling on April 18th and at that time warned:
If the Declaratory Ruling is allowed to stand, it invites National Grid and perhaps other utilities, at their discretion, to deny DPA offers to applicants with arrears. Such a result is unlawful and in violation of the statute. Also, the toleration of untariffed, novel standards for the provision of service invites future deviation from HEFPA and threatens the general health and welfare which HEFPA is designed to protect.
PULP’s concerns, prophetically, appear to have become full-blown National Grid practices. Gone are the days of the “Grand Plan” and the demands of 100%, but now the company is requiring applicants in these situations to pay 80% -- and, on top of that, appears to be instructing its employees to keep any new, inflexible 80% DPA demands a secret.

PULP supplemented the record on June 9th with an affidavit from a National Grid applicant from whom the utility was demanding an 80 percent down payment to have service turned on. National Grid and PSC Office of Consumer Services both expressed surprise, the rigid demand was attributed to be the mistake of a new Grid worker, and the applicant was provided service with a DPA within the statutory limits.

Now, as part of the discovery process in the PSC proceeding to consider National Grid’s request to increase its natural gas delivery rates by 33%, PULP has learned that a new “80% Solution” may be alive and well, and that National Grid apparently doesn’t want anyone to know when its representatives rigidly insist upon a minimum DPA downpayment equal to 80% of the balance due.

Using bold, red, underlined, and italicized letters, National Grid states in its internal memo to its customer service representatives, entitled “New York Payment Agreements”:
Do not advise customers of the percentage they are required to pay. Simply calculate the appropriate figure and let them know this is the dollar amount necessary to restore service or obtain a new payment agreement.

Again, avoid statements such as “you need to pay at least 80%” or “I am required to collect 80%.” Instead, after negotiating down from the full balance, and listening to the customer, let them know the necessary dollar amount . . .
As a result of practices such as this, applicants who should receive service in accordance with the statute are being denied a DPA within the statutory downpayment limits. No lights, no refrigeration, and no fans. Apparently that’s how National Grid believes some applicants for utility service should spend their Independence Day holiday weekend. PULP submitted the National Grid memo in a supplemental filing of new evidence in support of the pending April 18 rehearing petition.
Lou Manuta

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