Michigan hearing, March 2. Senator calls for shut-off moratorium and steep fines to reimburse affected customers; computer problems caused many power shut-offs

Michigan Public Service Commission hearing
Friday, March 2, 2018, 9 AM
Lansing, Michigan

It is critical that people call the MPSC to lodge complaints. If people don’t call, the extent of the investigation will be understated. People should call 1.800.292.9555 for any complaint they have, even if the incident occurred several months ago.
— Sen. Patrick Colbeck

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“I’m being contacted by the friends and families of people in their 70s and 80s who are disabled or have asthma or congestive heart failure,” Sen. Colbeck said. “I’m getting contacted by people who have cancer or whose children have cancer and are now in the damp cold. People who are dependent on nebulizers of other powered medical devices.

Some are homebound and are getting their power cut without a knock. Some go out to the grocery store and come home to darkness. I know of one elderly disabled couple who is going into their third winter without power.”

In a series of hard-hitting articles, Sen. Patrick Colbeck details his investigation into DTE and Consumers Energy power shut-offs during winter, and Michigan Public Service Commission “dereliction of duty”, even denying hearing rights, and waiving rules and record keeping by the utility companies so that the numbers of people being disconnected cannot be discovered.

He describes his amazement at the PSC and utility companies’ continued policies to shut of electricity, and the horrifying stories of elderly and disabled people and families with children living without electricity through winter (some, for multiple winters) and the Michigan resident who froze to death because he could not pay his bill.

Sen. Colbeck said that the type of behavior being exemplified by the shut-offs shows why both utility choice and meter-choice urgently need to be reexamined.

Until people can vote with their feet we’ll continue to see these problems,” Sen. Colbeck said. “People deserve the right to flee poor service when it jeopardizes their health and well-being.”

February 26, 2018

Colbeck regarding DTE penalties: Record fines needed, people must be compensated

LANSING, Mich. — State Sen. Patrick Colbeck commented Monday on the interim findingsfrom the Michigan Public Service Commission’s (MPSC) formal investigation of DTE Energy regarding multiple consumer protection violations and illegal shut-offs, many of which occurred in the 7th District.

No fines have been levied against DTE by the MPSC yet,” said Colbeck, R-Canton. “But clearly we have to go beyond DTE’s suggestion that the biggest penalty they pay is the detriment to their customer satisfaction, and not in any type of financial penalty.”

The MPSC findings, released Feb. 21, highlight how DTE has been caught violating several consumer protections rules, sometimes resulting in people having their power cut for inappropriate reasons. While the company has blamed many of the problems on a new computer system, Colbeck said the most recent issue fits into a longstanding pattern of poor customer service that arises when people don’t have the option to show dissatisfaction by voting with their feet.

We’re dealing with residential abuses against captive customers here,” Colbeck said.  “Many of these people were getting shut off in error during some of the coldest months we’ve seen in a decade, and it frequently took much too long for power to be restored. I think when the investigation is finished record fines will be required. We need to find a way to have real money flow back to affected customers in a manner that serves as true compensation and deterrence.”

Several hearings in the Michigan House have taken place on this issue. In one instance, a representative from DTE offered that the damage to customer satisfaction was a strong enough penalty. DTE also attempted to tout a customer service award as validation of their commitment to customer service, even though they ironically issued the press release for the award at the very same time they knew they were illegally shutting many people off from power in the middle of winter.

If DTE wants to show its commitment to customer service, quit touting sham awards and immediately begin to financially compensate these people,” said Colbeck. “They should publicly apologize to customers they left in the dark who were trying to comply with a smart meter program they never even wanted in the first place; they should offer people the ability to keep their analog meters; and if they aren’t willing to do those very reasonable and necessary things, they should set those customers free and offer them the ability to get a third party meter and electric service through somebody else.

One of the last large fines for a systemic utility violation was in 2016 when Consumers Energy was charged roughly $500,000 for estimated billing practices. Colbeck said that because of the nature and scope of the current problem, he expects fines against DTE will be much higher and that he wants to make sure people who were inappropriately shut off see payment for what they went through.  The fine money from 2016 did not go directly back to affected ratepayers.

This could be a multimillion-dollar fine, and I don’t believe current compensation to people for utility misconduct is adequate nor necessarily automatic,” Colbeck said.  “I will continue to work with the MPSC to recommend changes to their rules that I think we can all benefit from. I’m hopeful we will find some areas we can agree on, but if not, I’m working on legislation that would ensure that real consumer protections exist and that ratepayer rights can be fully exercised.”

Colbeck has previously submitted several suggestions for rule changes to the MPSC designed to make sure that the recent problems with DTE don’t happen again, and if they do, that they can be detected and stopped earlier by the state.

Part of the problem is that utility reporting is insufficient, and in many cases rules arbeing waived for years at a time,” Colbeck said. “We have people complaining that their meters aren’t accurate, yet I can’t read the reports on that because the reports don’t exist because the rules that require them have been waived. The state needs to start doing things to restore the public’s trust, to show them that their state government is looking out for them and not gaming the system against them.”

Colbeck said one particular source of frustration are rules that hinder ratepayers from trying to even help themselves. Customers currently have the right to try to request and be granted hearings where they can seek redress, but current rules are being used to deny these people assistance who either can’t find or can’t afford a lawyer.

There is a lot of confusion,” Colbeck said. “People invest time driving all the way to Lansing from places like my district to try and exercise their right to a hearing. Yet when they get here they are told they are not allowed to have someone assist them despite what the MPSC website currently says. What is the harm in having a daughter assist an 80-year-old father at a hearing?  What is the harm of someone having a person by their side to help keep them organized?

The utilities have armies of lawyers, yet we are shutting the door on ratepayers in what is already a David vs. Goliath situation. We need to change the rules to reflect what is allowed according to the MPSC’s very own website, both to get rid of confusion and to allow people to truly exercise the rights they are supposed to have.”

Colbeck said he expects record public attendance at the next phase of the hearings, which takes place at 9AM this Friday, March 2 in Lansing.

http://www.senatorpatrickcolbeck.com/colbeck-regarding-dte-penalties-record-fines-needed-people-must-be-compensated/

December 21, 2017

Sen. Colbeck calls for electric shut-off moratorium

LANSING, Mich. — State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, said on Thursday that he welcomed the announcement of a formal investigation into the electric shut-off practices of DTE and called for a moratorium on such practices until the investigation was completed.

In October our office began to see a big increase in the number of constituents contacting us and complaining about inappropriate shut-off notices and other problems that we reported to the MPSC,” Sen. Colbeck said. “As the months got colder those problems shockingly got worse instead of better. This formal investigation by the MPSC is going to clearly show that people were being threatened with shut-off notices they never should have received, resulting in turn with many of them then having their power inappropriately disconnected. In addition, getting power turned back on also took much longer than it is legally supposed to.

This has gone beyond just minor billing snafus and has unacceptably created significant stress, hardship, and endangerment for hundreds of people whose simple wish is to pay their bills and receive electric service. Especially in Michigan where people can’t just change their utility provider when they’re treated like this, it is imperative that we hold both our utilities and our oversight 110 percent accountable.”

Now that the extent of the problem is being acknowledged, Sen. Colbeck also called for the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to put a moratorium on DTE’s ability to shut off power to their residential customers until the investigation over the shut-off and billing problems has been completed. Power was wrongly cut for many reasons, but as an example, the investigation notice highlighted that at least 288 customers had their service improperly disconnected because of simple computer-related billing errors over the past six months.

This investigation is still necessary, but it is already a forgone conclusion that DTE’s computer problems are causing people to have power cut because of internal communication problems within DTE that incorrectly put people at risk for being flagged for shut-off,” said Colbeck. “I’ve had people contact me one week saying they got an inappropriate shut-off notice, were assured the next week that it wouldn’t happen, and then a few days later they would call my office back because DTE had returned to their home threatening shut-off again.

Until the investigation shows the exact steps that need to be taken to fix all of this, it would be prudent for the MPSC to, at the very least, have to pre-approve all residential shut-offs while this investigation is ongoing. A moratorium would be an even better course of action if simple billing errors that could affect anyone would result in shut-offs that jeopardize ratepayer health and personal safety during our cold winter months.”

Sen. Colbeck said while the main concern is for seniors, especially those who live by themselves, that in today’s high tech world a lack of power impacts everyone.

Older individuals would be calling from the library asking for help because their VOIP phones would not work with the power off and they had no way to recharge their cell phones,” Sen. Colbeck said. “When they would try to contact DTE they could often only leave a message, but had no working phone for DTE to even call them back on. Those who could not rely on the help of neighbors were significantly impacted.

But even younger families faced hardships beyond the cold. People’s computers would not work, and their kids were missing school assignments. Burglar alarms were down. Birthday parties and Thanksgiving plans were disrupted. Even for people who received notices but didn’t get shut off, they went through several stressful weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop and were oftentimes afraid to leave their homes unattended for fear of finding their power cut when they returned.”

Sen. Colbeck also highlighted that because the MPSC only knows what it is told that it is critical that people call the MPSC to lodge complaints. If people don’t call, the extent of the investigation will be understated. People should call 1.800.292.9555 for any complaint they have, even if the incident occurred several months ago.

Sen. Colbeck’s previous press release on the matter also drew attention to the fact that the MPSC currently does not formally ask the utilities to report why people have their electric power involuntarily shut off. Sen. Colbeck said he felt that would be an issue that would hamper the investigation and shows the need for changes in reporting.

State administrative rules need to be rewritten so that something like this can’t happen again,” Sen. Colbeck said. “I believe that the current law requires more detailed reporting than what the utilities are now submitting to the MPSC, but in any event it is clear that the MPSC has the legal ability to now retroactively ask for those details as they conduct this investigation. For example, it has been extremely frustrating for me to see people getting their power turned off because they simply want to keep their analog meter, to then be told that it is a rare occurrence, but then be unable to get the actual data on how frequently it is happening.

For a start we need to change the rules that allow for such meter-choice related shut-offs, that encourage lax reporting, and that allow utilities to take too long restoring power without experiencing any real ramifications.  Waiting a week to get power restored in the cold is simply too long, especially when the person shouldn’t even be getting their power cut in the first place.”

Sen. Colbeck said that the type of behavior being exemplified by the shut-offs shows why both utility choice and meter-choice urgently need to be reexamined.

Until people can vote with their feet we’ll continue to see these problems,” Sen. Colbeck said. “People deserve the right to flee poor service when it jeopardizes their health and well-being.”

http://www.senatorpatrickcolbeck.com/sen-colbeck-calls-for-electric-shut-off-moratorium/

November 1, 2017

Colbeck questions Michigan Public Service Commission

Does the MPSC serve the public?

LANSING, Mich. — State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, slammed the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) on Wednesday for dereliction of duty for their policies that allow utilities to cut the power of people who are trying to keep their analog utility meters.

It‘s been roughly eight years since Marvin Schur died a painful death as he slowly froze in his own home because he had problems paying his utility bills,” Sen. Colbeck said. “Government reacted then by taking steps to make sure that could never again happen. Yet as the weather turns colder, untold people who have paid their bills but who are simply trying to keep their analog meter are having their power cut right now, setting the stage for history to repeat itself.

Does the MPSC feel that some lives are more valuable than others? Given the monopoly status of our utilities, the MPSC is supposed to represent the interests of the ratepayers who are the captive customers of our utilities.”

Sen. Colbeck said he does not know how many people have had their power cut over “smart meters” because he has not been able to get an answer from the MPSC, which may not even know the answer themselves. Sen. Colbeck said he believes that hundreds of ratepayers have potentially received the shut-off notices, and that over twenty have contacted his office personally after their power was indeed cut.

More often than not the callers are elderly or disabled. Many have medical devices that require power, and many have phones that don’t work when power is out.

Given the latest wave of shut-off notices, Sen. Colbeck wonders how many more people who are elderly like Mr. Schur either haven’t reached out for help or are cut off from the outside world without a cell phone or a way to keep one charged.

I’m being contacted by the friends and families of people in their 70s and 80s who are disabled or have asthma or congestive heart failure,” Sen. Colbeck said. “I’m getting contacted by people who have cancer or whose children have cancer and are now in the damp cold. People who are dependent on nebulizers of other powered medical devices.

Some are homebound and are getting their power cut without a knock. Some go out to the grocery store and come home to darkness. I know of one elderly disabled couple who is going into their third winter without power. This is supposed to be the United States, not some third world country.”

Sen. Colbeck said he has not received any response to a letter he wrote to the MPSC commissioners two weeks ago. In this letter he asked for them to change their rules so people would have the ability to access electric service independent of whether they wanted to accept so-called “smart meters” on their property.

http://www.senatorpatrickcolbeck.com/colbeck-questions-michigan-public-service-commission/

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