Friday, May 25, 2018
Business

Angry Duke Energy customers look to Tallahassee for help

The list is long. Too long.

Dozens of calls and emails, all with similar customer complaints about Duke Energy Florida.

Never had these ratepayers seen their electric bills as high as they did this month. $250. $488. $573.75.

Stacey Blais of Clearwater wrote to say her August bill had reached $749.10.

"I for one am outraged by my high energy bill, which has doubled since last year's bill," Blais said in an email. "I have been so upset about these high bills that I get ill and stressed out just thinking about it."

Without question, this summer's string of 90-plus-degree days is working air-conditioning units overtime and contributing to exorbitant utility costs. Florida utilities faced some of the highest energy-usage days this month since August 2007.

But a large part of the complaint problem is Duke's doing. And its undoing.

Come Thursday, the utility will have some explaining to do to the state Public Service Commission, which asked Duke to appear before the five-member panel for questioning.

Duke added days, and even weeks, on a one-time basis to the monthly billing cycle of some 267,000 customers as part of a change to its meter-reading system. For some, the extended bills increased their electricity usage and kicked them into a higher rate tier, costing them even more.

After public outcry and pressure from state lawmakers, Duke promised a credit on average of $5.62 on future bills. Some customers will get more, some less.

But that appears only to have angered customers more.

Ned Leavy, 71, who lives in the Five Towns community of St. Petersburg, called about his credit. He's deciding whether the payment plan Duke offered for his bill will still enable him to afford his blood pressure medicine over the next five months.

"This really puts a lousy taste in my mouth," said Leavy, who said he was told that he might get a credit as high as $9.42, an amount that seemed arbitrary and too small. "I asked the representative, 'How do you people sleep at night?' She said, 'Actually, I sleep very well.'

"I've been in business for 30 years. I've never received a colder or more frosty answer."

Ted Petine bought his house in Tarpon Springs a few months ago and hasn't even moved in. The Bloomfield, N.J., resident received a bill this month for $170. His thermostat stays at 80 degrees. There's no refrigerator in the house. And just a couple of night lights burn in the evenings.

"I'm not even living in the house yet," said Petine of his 1,800-square-foot home. "I insisted as a consumer that they come out and check the meter. They refused. They don't seem to give a damn."

Petine said he hopes he gets a credit. But he's not holding his breath.

Blais wondered if anyone plans to take legal action, as some have suggested, or do anything else that could help customers against the nation's largest utility company, a company that ranks lowest year after year for customer service among big utilities in Florida.

"I spoke to another employee of Duke Energy who was completely unsympathetic to this travesty. I almost broke down in tears," Blais said. "So Ivan, is there anyone specific that I need to speak to directly?"

Perhaps the question now is: Tallahassee, are you listening?

Contact Ivan Penn at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.

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Published: 05/25/18