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Couple powerless in 9-month fight

As dusk approaches, Jory Bricker and John Wall move smoothly through their nightly ritual.

She arrives home with an 8-pound bag of ice and fried chicken from a grocery store deli. He drops a six-pack of Miller into a small plastic-foam cooler and sprinkles it with ice. The remaining ice restocks larger coolers that hold food. The store-bought chicken hits the outdoor grill for reheating.

A small propane burner heats a pan of water for instant mashed potatoes. Oil lamps illuminate the bathroom and bedroom, throwing soot onto walls and ceilings. An extension cord snaking through a window from the house next door feeds a few lamps, an alarm clock and a television set.

As they have for nine months, Bricker and Wall are camping out in their own house, clinging to hope that they can beat Florida Power Corp. in a protracted dispute and regain their power.

So far, it hasn't gone well.

Bricker, who owns the home, complained for several years that Florida Power was overcharging her. Her appliances burned out more than once. Her stove shocked her. And it's all because company technicians messed up while replacing her meter, she said last week.

Nonsense, replied St. Petersburg lawyer Richard McCrory, who represents Florida Power. The company has bent over backward trying to help Bricker manage her electric bills, McCrory said. Any wiring problems in the house are Bricker's responsibility, not the company's.

The Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, has investigated several times and always sided with the company.

The stakes escalated in May, when Florida Power halted service in the face of about $1,000 in unpaid bills.

Bricker, 40, sued and wants $300,000 in damages and a jury trial. Her health has suffered, she said, and the stress of litigation recently forced her take leave from her job as a Winn-Dixie cashier. No lawyer wants to handle her case, Bricker said, so she must file pleadings and arrange hearings on her own.

From the semi-darkness of their powerless home, Bricker and Wall, 35, reminisce about hot baths, a good night's sleep and frozen dinners that pop right into the microwave.

Their perspective is that of long-suffering Davids vs. a cold-hearted Goliath.

"They are big corporation. They have lawyers who can run us through the courts all they want," said Wall, who is Bricker's boyfriend and a kitchen manager at Ruby Tuesday's.

Said Bricker: "When we are in court, everyone in there has electricity but us. I keep thinking, "We can fight this thing for 10 years down the road, but meanwhile, all of you have electricity.' "

McCrory's perspective is that of a company guarding its interests against a deliberate ploy.

In his 23 years of representing Florida Power, McCrory said, Bricker is the first residential customer to sue after power was shut off. If the company gave in to Bricker, other delinquent customers would try to avoid payment, and that could result in rate increases, he said.

"This is a monetary issue. She is unwilling to pay her past-due bill, and the courts are requiring that be done."

The argument began in August 1989, when Bricker's appliances began to burn out. The stove, washer and dryer, hot tub pump, toaster, stereo, vacuum cleaner all needed repair.

An electrician noticed that the Florida Power service line running from the utility pole was frayed halfway to the house. The company installed a new line and meter and paid Bricker $194 for appliance damage; her homeowner's insurance paid an additional $500.

A few months later, Bricker began complaining to the PSC that her monthly bills had taken a large jump. Bills that used to average $100 a month now topped $200. She also was getting shocked by her appliances, she said. Once, she grabbed a pan on the stove "and I couldn't drop the pan for almost 30 seconds, the shock was so bad."

Four times, she complained. Each time, Florida Power employees checked her house and reported a multitude of problems, including internal wiring.

The water heater was set at a wasteful 150 degrees, the Florida Power employees said. The hot tub was not covered by an insulated cover and was improperly wired to the circuit box, the company said. A voltage meter showed that the hot tub was drawing about 780 kilowatt hours per month, one-third to one-half of Bricker's total power usage.

The big jump in billing began right after Bricker installed the hot tub, the company noted. It told her to consult an electrician.

Saying she was dissatisfied with these explanations and with shocks from her appliances, Bricker held back parts of her monthly payment.

In March 1993, Bricker said, she found the answer. An electrician discovered a burned-out clamp on a ground wire leading from the meter box. It could cause leakage, he said.

Armed with this information, she complained anew to the PSC.

Whatever had frayed the power line in 1989 probably burned the ground clamp as well, Bricker told the PSC. When Florida Power employees installed the new meter box, they failed to test the ground wire to make sure it was operating properly. Had they tested the ground wire, they would have discovered the burned clamp and would have saved her 3{ years of high bills, she figured. She noted that her power usage dropped 500 kilowatt hours in April, a month after the electrician fixed the ground clamp.

Both the PSC and an administrative hearing officer agreed with the company.

The meter box divides the company's responsibility from the customer's responsibility, PSC investigators said. The company must test only ground wires connected to its power poles. Ground wires leading from the meter box are "on the customer's side of the box" and no different from internal wiring in the house, the PSC ruled. They are the customer's responsibility.

Bricker's April power bill may have dropped from March, but her kilowatt usage in April and May 1993 was consistent with April and May bills for the past three years.

Pay your past-due bill or face loss of power, the PSC told her. She didn't, and Florida Power turned off the juice.

Bricker's original lawsuit, filed in August, was dismissed for technical flaws. She amended it last month and may get to argue her case at a March 17 hearing.

Meanwhile, she and John Wall said, they will continue to shower with hot water from a pan and sleep in the family room, where the extension cord from next door lights up a few lamps.

A wood-burning fireplace made winter bearable, they said. But the stagnant air of a muggy August is what makes Floridians appreciate electricity.

"I keep thinking I can't make it through another summer," Bricker said. "This is terrible."

Up next:STARGAZING

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