Under current state law, utility companies are allowed to back bill customers for up to two years of charges that are overlooked because of a malfunctioning meter. State Senator Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) says that’s an unfair business practice that needs to be stopped.
Ellis is sponsoring a bill that would make companies responsible for any missed charges after the monthly billing cycle has passed. The Neenah Republican says it should not be the job of customers to make sure the equipment monitoring their energy use is working properly.
The bill was inspired by the owner of a Kaukauna supper club, who went out of business after it was found her meter had not been working properly for over a decade. Kathleen Freible had owned the business for just a few years when utility workers discovered the meter was not wired properly. It had been improperly recording energy use since it was installed in the 1990s.
Freible says her entire business model was based on the projected energy use when she bought the business in 2005, and when We Energies tried to collect over $16,000 from her it added an extra $1,000 a month to her bill. She says the company would not negotiate some type of settlement. Eventually, she says she was unable to keep up and was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Joan Shafer with We Energies says such errors are rare, but the company needs to be able to go after unpaid usage in order to keep rates under control for all customers.
She says the proposed bill unfairly assumes their equipment works properly all the time. While Shafer says they strive to have 99-percent of their meters working properly, the company has over 2.2 million in use. About 15,000 meters failed last year.
Shafer also warned lawmakers Wednesday during a hearing on the bill that the change could hurt their ability to go after energy thieves, since it can sometimes be difficult to prove a meter has been tampered with.
The bill is being considered by a Senate committee.