PSE fined $100k for mishandling delinquent low-income accounts

Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy was fined more than $100,000 on Tuesday for numerous violations in handling accounts, primarily of low-income customers who were disconnected from service due to nonpayment.

The $104,300 penalty handed down from the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) covered 1,043 violations of consumer protection rules, 965 of which were for failing to correctly apply the state’s “refusal of service rule.”

The rule states that energy companies must give customers a chance to start over when they’ve amassed a past debt. They must be allowed to reconnect with a two-month deposit payment and a $37 reconnection fee. PSE forced its customers to repay the entire debt before energy would be restored.

“There were occasions where they (PSE) told the customer they needed to pay the entire amount before they could reconnect,” said Sharon Wallace, the UTC’s assistant director for consumer protection. “In that case, it would end up with the customer remaining disconnected because they didn’t have the money or they needed several months to pay.”

These rules are in place to make sure that even if customers are unable to pay for gas or electric service, they still have access to power, Wallace said.

PSE spokeswoman Dorothy Bracken confirmed PSE’s practice of requiring the entire past due amount prior to reconnection, but since working with the state on this investigation, policies have been changed to reflect the rules.

Bracken added that the violations did not represent customers. She said 965 of the violations occurred on 26 accounts, with the fine amount and number of infractions growing because of lag time before correction in policy.

The investigation began in 2009, when the UTC conducted a routine audit on customer complaints against PSE, as it does on all energy companies.

Wallace said she sent a letter to a number of energy companies that the UTC felt weren’t correctly applying the rule, but even after the warning, PSE continued its policy until the investigation began.

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