Like anyone, Fernot may not have been too concerned about what appeared to be good news on water usage, but electric bills that were three times higher than she expected were a concern.
She says she contacted Green Mountain Power to report the problem just a few months after she moved in, in November 2009. She also started a strict conservation campaign at home to cut back on electric use. The house was built to be energy efficient, she was told by the Windham Housing Trust who sold the unit. And it had energy-efficient appliances.
She made sure light fixtures had low-wattage compact fluorescent bulbs. She kept most of the lights off anyway, except when absolutely needed. Fernot even ditched her old energy hog desktop computer for a new low-usage model. She unplugged anything that might draw electricity while not in use. Nothing seemed to make a difference.
“I even had an energy audit done,” Fernot says. “After they came in, they said they don’t understand how I could save any more. I already had energy efficient appliances, and we were sitting around at night with one light on. In the meantime, our neighbor had all the lights on, TV on, and air conditioning going, and his bill was about a third of ours. We couldn’t figure it out.”
Fernot says she continued to look for ways to cut consumption, getting rid of her freezer and any other non-essential electrical equipment. She also continued to follow up with GMP, and asked them to send someone out to investigate. She says GMP never sent anyone out to take a look. They told her she may have older appliances, and that she should take steps to get her usage under control.
Then, a little more than a year ago, the owners of a neighboring building discovered that their water meters were reversed – they had each been paying the other’s water bills for years. “They said ‘If the water is reversed, is the electric?’ And GMP checked and found that was reversed. But even though they knew I was having this problem, they never checked our building.”
According to Fernot, she has since learned from Windham Housing Trust the issue may be connected to a change in the units’ addresses that took place before the buyers even moved in. In the case of the electrical mixup at the other duplex, Fernot says GMP reimbursed the neighbor in the other building who had overpaid, and never charged the neighbor who had underpaid.
When Fernot found out about the situation at the building next door, she complained to the water department, and to Green Mountain Power. She says the water department reacted, and found her neighbor had been paying her higher bill. They reimbursed the neighbor and charged her. She’s currently paying the amount back in installments.
Finally, with GMP on the phone, Fernot got them to try turning off her power. But when they did, nothing happened in her condominium. When they tried shutting off her neighbor’s power, however, the lights went out. She says GMP finally sent technicians out, but they couldn’t figure out how to get the power back on. Eventually they left and told her to hire an electrician. Late that night, a local electrician was able to get electric service restored. Afterward, Fernot says, GMP would not acknowledge any responsibility for the situation, and she turned to the Vermont Department of Public Service for help.
“Nobody was taking ownership,” she says. “I think GMP was grossly negligent for not bothering to come out and investigate after I complained multiple times. I was paying about $150 a month, while my neighbor was paying about $50.”
Recently, Fernot received a credit on her account with GMP for her overpayment of the last 18 months – back to the period when a “smart” meter was installed. She has also received a letter from the DPS saying that both GMP and Windham Housing Trust refused to provide documents to the Department of Public Service regarding the issue, but that GMP’s resolution appears to be fair. “Given that facts are inconclusive, we believe this is a reasonable resolution, even though the problem may have persisted for a longer period of time.”
Fernot disagrees. “Nobody asked me if that’s OK,” she says. “I got a credit of about $1,400, but I’ve overpaid by thousands, probably closer to $4,000 or $5,000. I should be reimbursed for all of it.”
Neither GMP nor the Department of Public Service would comment on the specifics of Fernot’s case, citing rules regarding client confidentiality. But GMP spokesman Dorothy Schnure says the company takes billing disputes seriously. “We make every effort to understand what happened, and we try to resolve the issue in a way that’s fair.”
DPS Consumer Affairs Director Carol Flint says the DPS would also look for a “data point” on which to base a resolution, such as the installation of a smart meter. But Flint says a complaint to the DPS is an informal process, and their recommendations are nonbinding. A customer who is unsatisfied with a resolution through their process can still bring a formal complaint to the Public Service Board.
“If a consumer is unhappy with the outcome, they can appeal directly to the Public Service Board and ask for a formal investigation,” Flint said.
Fernot says she’s frustrated that GMP declined to provide information to the DPS regarding her history of complaints and calls to their offices, and that Windham Housing Trust didn’t provide information regarding the change of address that may have led to the metering foul-up. “I feel like they’re not leaving me any options short of getting a lawyer,” she says.