PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Milena Pagan, the owner of Providence restaurant Little Sister, was shocked when she opened up a stack of electricity bills from Rhode Island Energy last year.
The total: $19,053.
Pagan told 12 News she had been paying her electricity bills on time and the expensive bills came without warning.
“It’s astounding,” she said.
According to Rhode Island Energy, the utility company had been estimating her monthly bills based on a prior tenant’s lower usage for about two years. When a technician was sent out in June 2022 to get an actual reading, the company realized its estimates were far too low, which triggered the massive retroactive billing.
“One hundred percent this could cost me my business, because at the end of the day I’m just a little guy — they’re the big guy,” she said.
Now, Pagan is fighting the bill by taking the issue to state regulators.
“I put in a complaint with [the state] in early December,” Pagan said.
The R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers oversees complaints regarding Rhode Island Energy’s practices. The regulator has the authority to investigate a utility service and their billing.
Pagan said that at her preliminary hearing in March, Rhode Island Energy offered her a payment plan to chip away at the massive bill. The expectation is that she would pay more than $600 a month until the bill is fully paid off.
The issue has landed on the radar of the R.I. Attorney General, which gets involved in ratepayer-related issues.
“Although we do not represent Little Sister, who is entitled to obtain its own legal counsel, we are interested in ensuring that the consumer is protected and treated fairly, and the utility complies with all of its legal obligations,” the Attorney General’s spokesperson Brian Hodge said in a statement.
“The office of the attorney general takes seriously any issue where a consumer or a small business is hurt by ‘surprise billing’ or by potentially onerous or improper billing practices,” he added.
So far Pagan has rejected Rhode Island Energy’s offer to enter into a payment plan, saying she still doesn’t believe she should be at fault for the billing issue.
“I am not convinced that the bills are legitimate. I am not convinced they’re correct, and so I can’t pay them until I’m convinced,” she said.
Pagan’s situation is a cautionary tale for any ratepayer taking over a new business or residential space: There is currently no law in place that prevents Rhode Island Energy from retroactively billing a consumer, regardless of the amount and time, unless there’s an issue with the meter.
Rhode Island Energy spokesperson Evelyn Garcia said they tested Pagan’s meter and determined it was “not faulty or malfunctioning,” which they argue means the business owner is on the hook for the billing discrepancy.
“Since the meter is accurate, the customer is responsible for the usage,” Garcia said.
Pagan’s next hearing at the DPUC is scheduled for April 17.
“In what universe is a public utility being pitted against its consumers to that degree?” Pagan asked.