Customers with switched meters face thousands in unexpected charges

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by Diane Moca

Wind Lake -- Most residents don't usually think about whether the meters that track their utility usage are correct, until they find out an error has been made and they are shocked to learn that a Wisconsin law demands that customers sometimes pay for the mistake even if it's not their fault.

Such mistakes are costing some people thousands and thousands of dollars.

Ashley and Dan Williams represent one example.

Ashley is overwhelmed with worry, and one of her main concerns is that her family can no longer afford the home she loves.

She blames WE Energies.

"I feel it's their error. I don't think it's right," she explained.

Ashley says in May, a WE Energies technician showed up at her duplex in Wind Lake to test her electricity and later told her that her meter was mistakenly swapped with the next-door neighbor's meter.

She said the technician told her the company would be switching them back, and that would cause her bill to change.

"We moved here because the electric was cheaper," noted Ashley. She added that she called WE Energies before she moved in to the duplex to get the average bill for the unit, and she was told "90 dollars a month, and even the people that lived here told us the same thing."

Though Ashley says they've been paying $90 per month since moving in 20 months ago, WE Energies now says that her unit really costs $241 per month and her neighbor's unit -- which is about the same size with about the same number of occupants -- was supposed to be getting the $90 monthly bill.

"The meter had been switched incorrectly, an error that should not have occurred. And now we have re-billed them, which is required by state statute," explained Barry McNulty, communications manager for WE Energies.

So the Williams received a bill for $2,754.22 -- the difference between the amount they paid and the amount they were supposed to be paying for the past year and a half.

It's a hard pill to swallow in the middle of dealing with their two-year-old daughter's medical crisis.

"Our daughter has seizure problems, and we just found out she has tumors in her brain," sobbed Ashley. While she is trying to focus on the health of her four kids, she says WE Energies is "stressing me out more."

Dan says WE Energies offered to divide the past due balance into payments over 24 months, but they still couldn't afford $355.76 a month to cover those previous charges and the new monthly bill.

The Williams say they called WE Energies repeatedly to negotiate a reduction but got nowhere.

"I don't think it's fair to go back two years, 'cause that's what they're saying is allowed. And I just don't think it's right to do that to people, 'cause how many other people are out there that this is happening to?" wondered Dan.

WE Energies says they investigate about 35 potential cases of switched meters every month, which they call "very rare" out of the 2.2 million meters in their system.

When asked how the meters got switched, McNulty responded: "We don't know. We don't know that."

Ashley says WE Energies told her they replaced the old analog meters with new digital ones in 2007, and she thinks that's when the bills got switched.

"They say it's a mistake... human error... they're definitely covering their grounds," she complained. "I hate them! I really do, because I feel like they are ruining us."

"Any person out there who uses electric, if they see their bill is high, they're gonna go back in there and do what they can to lower their bill. And now we were robbed of that opportunity," added Dan.

So were the previous tenants who say they are now facing $963.73 in charges from the switched meters, while the next-door neighbor who initiated the investigation will get a refund of approximately $8,000.

After CBS 58 contacted WE Energies, Dan says the utility used energy assistance to lower the monthly budget amount to $205 and arrange a deal to wipe out the past due balance if he pays his current usage on time every month for the next year.

"We've worked out enough programs that will help them get through that rebilling process," explained McNulty.

WE Energies says state statute requires that the utility must send a refund for up to six years of overpayment and re-bill for up to two years of underpayment.

And though state rules say a utility may -- or presumably may not -- bill a customer for a meter error, WE Energies says other statutues which prohibit discrimination trump that rule.

Last year, 10 state lawmakers proposed a legislative change that would prohibit utilities from billing customers for any charges that aren't in the current billing cycle, which would save anyone from getting hit with an unexpected bill because of a meter switch or meter error.

Co-sponsors of that that bill say it passed the Senate, but not the Assembly, because 18 utility agencies and companies lobbied against it, including Alliant Energy, City of Madison, City of Milwaukee, Cooperative Network Association, Dairyland Power Cooperative, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Madison Gas & Electric Company, Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin, Municipal Environmental Group - Water Division, Municipal Environmental Group - Wastewater Division, Northern States Power d/b/a Xcel Energy, Wisconsin Energy Corporation (WE Energies), Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, Wisconsin Rural Water Association, Wisconsin Utilities Association Inc., Wisconsin Utility Investors Inc. and WPPI Energy.

If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, send an email to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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