A utility company in the Hudson Valley has agreed to implement customer service improvements following a New York state Public Service Commission investigation. The investigation began after a low-income advocacy group alleged the company was using unfair collection practices.
The Public Service Commission initiated its investigation into Central Hudson Gas & Electric after complaints from low-income advocacy group Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson. Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson Executive Director Jonathan Bix says his grassroots group, along with the Public Utility Law Project of New York, brought the complaints after the following.
“We talked to thousands of people in the Central Hudson service territory and were consistently seeing shutoffs despite cold temperatures, despite households that had serious medical issues,” Bix says. “And so, as we talked to more and more people, it just became clear that it was a systematic problem, and so we collected testimonies and stories from people and then submitted the request for the investigation.”
John Maserjian is spokesman for Poughkeepsie-based Central Hudson.
“Well, we thought those allegations were grossly unfair and completely misrepresented our practices,” says Maserjian. “We work with our vulnerable customers one-on-one. We take great care and pride in our ability to help customers through financial difficulties.”
The PSC investigation found that Central Hudson is in compliance with the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, but that there are opportunities to further improve termination processes and procedures. The PSC investigation also found no evidence of trends suggesting systemic improper practices or procedures. In many instances, according to the PSC, disputes between customers and Central Hudson arose or were prolonged because of customer failures or delays in providing appropriate documentation. Again, Maserjian.
“So we really feel vindicated that there were no instances of violations of not following the Home Energy Fair Practices Act rules and regulations, that there were no instances of discrimination,” Maserjian says. “And that’s what we had said all along, and we really feel that the Public Service Commission did their due diligence and found that we were in compliance with all the rules and regulations and that we do treat our customers fairly.”
Bix responds to the outcome of the PSC investigation.
“And so we’re pleased, that as a result of these findings, Central Hudson’s going to raise the debt threshold they use to determine shutoffs, raise the debt threshold during the winter, especially compared to other times of year, and prioritizing shutoff accounts with the oldest and greatest arrears and not just, or not… rather focusing also on how they can most efficiently shut off the most people. And we’re glad they’re instituting a number of other measures as well to try to reduce shutoffs.”
The Commission also said the utility has agreed to revise training materials for customer service representatives to ensure they provide appropriate guidance for transferring debts where the customer claims identity theft. And the company will provide additional training to ensure employees handle complaints in a manner consistent with the state’s utility consumer protection rules and the company’s training and reference materials. Maserjian says Central Hudson will be working with the PSC in clarifying the recommendations and making any necessary adjustments.
“And, in fact, the PSC did say that they’ll be working with us as we make these adjustments,” Maserjian says. “And we’ll be meeting in the spring to review how these adjustments have been going.”
The PSC found Central Hudson performed 11,304 residential terminations in 2016, about 4.3 percent of its total residential customers. That’s higher than the average rate of all New York state utilities, which was 3.1 percent.