Central Hudson faulted by Hinchey for billing processes

Senator Michelle Hinchey and County Human Rights Commissioner Tyrone Wilson.

State Senator Michelle Hinchey joined Ulster County Human Rights Commissioner Tyrone Wilson in Kingston December 14 to announce legislation seeking to reign in large fluctuations in utility bills, often caused by estimations of use.

The proposed new state regulations come in the midst of ongoing billing issues that have affected more than 10,000 Central Hudson customers according to company figures.

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Speaking outside of her district office at the 721 Media Center on Broadway Hinchey shared stories of homeowners, renters and small businesses shocked when they received outrageous bills, sometimes for thousands of dollars from Central Hudson.

She told how one constituent in Tannersville in Greene County saw a bill jump from $70 to $350 in the span of one month. A Stone Ridge resident used less electricity in the next month but still had to pay the same amount. While a senior on a fixed-income in Catskill saw their bill skyrocket by $158 dollars.

Perhaps the most egregious example was a small business in New Paltz that saw its bill jump from $32 to over $5000, even after installing renewable energy on-site and putting up the upfront costs for such an installation so as to save money down the road along with the planet, Hinchey said.

When questioned about the overpayments Hinchey said she feels people should get credited back for that month and the next month. But she admitted that it offers little comfort to those who can’t afford to pay the really high bill in the first place.

In a phone interview with Hudson Valley One, Central Hudson spokesperson Joe Jenkins said about 11,000 customers have been affected representing about three percent of the utility’s 309,000 customers, primarily those who are enrolled in “ancillary programs” such as rooftop solar.

Jenkins blamed the billing issues on the utility replacing its old customer information system which dates to the 1980s. He said the change was prompted by a need to have an updated software system that accommodates an ever growing assortment of energy options.

“The transition is what’s causing those billing problems,” Jenkins said. He added while the system has flags to prevent outliers from going out, sometimes a few slip through.

Jenkins said any customers who receive a bill that seems far too high should reach out to the utility to make sure everything is accurate before they pay it.

Auto pay, auto overdraft

Hinchey said she’s also heard instances of people who use Central Hudson’s automatic billing being charged exorbitant amounts, sometimes leading to dire consequences especially for lower-income individuals and seniors.

“People use automatic payments to make sure they’re not missing a bill, to make sure they’re not charged overdraft fees; to make sure if they miss something, to make sure they can stay on time and build credit,» Hinchey said. «If they believe their bills are one thing and they have an estimated bill that›s hundreds or thousands more than they budgeted for, or they’re planning for, or they can afford, they’re now experiencing overdraft fees, experiencing inability to pay their other bills, which is going to experience bad credit, or checks on their credit report — which we know is one of the most important things we have right now.”

She said that these problems couldn’t have come at a worse time as food and housing prices have skyrocketed leaving many individuals struggling or unable to make ends meet.

Jenkins admitted the utility did have some “very isolated” instances of inaccurate bills making it into customer’s autopay accounts, sometimes even forcing them into overdraft situations. He said in those instances the utility refunded these bills and any overdraft fees.

“We’re doing everything we can to make that right,” Jenkins said. If a customer has to make a report to a credit bureau the utility would do everything they could do to make sure the negative impacts are removed.

Seeking to reign in a problem beyond software issues

But Hinchey said the problem goes beyond software issues and lies in utility companies like Central Hudson, National Grid and Con Edison’s use of estimated utility readings when a gas or electric utility predicts the amount of power a customer would have used that month based on their past usage. This, she said frequently leads to customers being overcharged.

The Saugerties Democrat’s proposed legislation would aim to curb this billing method which she says has placed significant hardship on lower-income residents in her district.

If passed the legislation would require the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, to develop a best practices estimation formula that would limit the number of times an estimated billing formula could be used to three times per year from the present six. The proposed law would also set a deadline of November 1, 2022, for the agency to create this new billing standard after a comprehensive review of the estimated billing procedures used by all utilities in New York State.

Jenkins said while the estimate system is not perfect, it seeks to find a middle ground that sorts out the highs and lows while trying to find a middle ground. He pushed the utility’s budget billing plan that takes into account a customer’s usage over the past year or two then comes with a monthly number for 11 months, with the 12th month serving as the balancing month where customers may pay less if they use less energy or a bit more if they consumed more.

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Customers not getting their utility bills 

Hinchey also spoke of other occasions where customers did not receive their bills in a timely fashion, then faced late charges and other fees on top of their back payments.

Jenkins admitted there were also cases of Central Hudson customers, again primarily those who use ancillary energy options, who went a few months without getting a bill. He said the utility has engaged in outreach by email, traditional mail and phone, but he cautioned that a bill may show a larger balance for the time not billed.

Jenkins said the utility will offer these customers alternative payment options including a payment plan with no time limit.

He said the utility will not be terminating service for these customers or charging late fees. “We’re doing everything work with customers on an individual basis.”

Human Right Commissioner Wilson emphasized the importance of actual monitoring of meters pointing to examples of where Central Hudson did not read the meters for months, or a house was sold and the person who moves in inherits the billing. He said it’s the utility’s responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen.

“This is the profession they choose to be in and it’s a responsibility.” Wilson said these billing issues are proof the utility’s monitoring system has failed everybody and it’s the public that is paying for their failure. “Central Hudson…the money is in their bank and the people have to wait to see when they’ll get their money back,” he said. Wilson called on everyone to get behind the bill. “This is a disaster,” he said.

Bi-montly readings are a long-standing practice

Jenkins said that bi-monthly meter readings for residential customers have been a standard practice since WWII. He said the utility only moved to monthly billing in 2016 to comply with state regulations.

Hinchey said she’s heard stories of people who have gone to their meter to take a picture of it to prove the numbers are wrong and find that the estimation is so absurdly wrong but they never hear back after submitting their photos via email.

She also noted renters can be out of luck when they can’t access utility rooms where the meters are housed in their apartment buildings. “What are they supposed to do,” Hinchey questioned.

When asked about customers taking photos of their power meters and submitting them to the utility, Jenkins said some customers have turned to taking photos of their meters each month in-lieu of the estimate method, but it is not a mandatory program by any means.

Finding a resolution 

Hinchey urged anyone who received an exorbitant bill to call her district office and report it as the Senator seeks to not only get accurate counts of how many people have experienced this, but also for her staffers to be able to call on their behalf.

She acknowledged that all too often people don’t have the time to spend hours on the phone with Central Hudson to fight these bills. She noted that fear can also be a factor, especially for undocumented families who may be afraid to reach out to government agencies like the Public Service Commission.

“We cannot use this as a customer solution, the customer should not be held accountable or held responsible for fixing the problem that the company is causing,” Hinchey said.

Jenkins said the utility is putting “full resources” into resolving the problem. “We know our customers deserve a higher level of service,” he said.

He said Central Hudson is doing everything to help affected customers by the end of the year. But he cautioned the utility still does not have a defined finish line for when every bug and quirk will be worked out of the new software.

Jenkins recommends that anyone with billing issues should call Central Hudson at 845-452-3700. He said the utility has doubled the staffing in its call center to help reduce hold times on billing issues. He said the utility also has an online chat option available on its website and customers can also reach out via direct message on the utility’s social media pages. Jenkins asserted that for privacy protection, customers should never put sensitive info in public posts on its social media channels.

“We’re working on an individual basis with customers while our IT and software contractors are working seven days a week,” Jenkins said. “We expect customer service to get back by early next year.”

Looking ahead, Jenkins said Central Hudson will comply with whatever regulations the PSC hands down should the bill pass and if it requires monthly meter readings the utility will “make the adjustments internally in order to comply with that,” he said.