PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lawmakers are calling for tighter restrictions on how the state’s largest utility can bill gas and electric customers, raising concerns about a recent trend of people receiving surprise electricity bills.
House Oversight Chairwoman Patricia Serpa and Sen. John Burke are championing new legislation that would require Rhode Island Energy to get in-person estimates of all gas and electric usage from customers each quarter.
Under the proposal, if the utility company doesn’t get the actual reads, it wouldn’t be allowed to retroactively bill customers if they undercharged a household or business during any previous months.
“Rhode Island Energy touches every one of our constituents,” Serpa told Target 12. “This is a very important issue and I want it to get the attention it deserves.”
The legislation filed this week in the House was spurred by a Target 12 investigation that revealed multiple small business owners were receiving tens of thousands of dollars in surprise electricity bills. Rhode Island Energy has been playing catch up over the past year to collect actual reads of utility usage after hitting pause on in-person visits to homes and businesses during the pandemic.
Whenever the actual read comes in higher than their previously estimated calculations, the utility adjusts bills to reflect the difference — leaving customers to come up with unexpected costs that could have been accumulating over several months.
“Every dollar matters,” Giana Dercole, whose family owns Cola Foods in Cranston, told Target 12 last month. “I’d like to see the laws changed where they can’t do this to businesses or people in their houses.”
Rhode Island Energy spokesperson Ted Kresse said the company was reviewing the legislation and looked forward to “working with legislators to help them and our customers better understand why estimated reads are sometimes necessary, for example if there are challenges to accessing a meter.” The company also encourages customers who have any concern with any estimates on their bills to contact the Rhode Island to request an actual read.
“We also look forward to hearing from legislators on how they believe we can improve current practices,” he added. (Serpa confirmed she’s already talked with company representatives about the legislation.)
The issue first came to light in March when Little Sister restaurant owner Milena Pagan received a stack of surprise electricity bills totaling $19,000. A Target 12 report about her situation spurred several other business owners to share similar stories. Cola Foods in Cranston received $13,000 in surprise bills; J’s Cigar Lounge in Coventry received bills totaling $45,000.
“Those dollars amounts are almost impossible to wrap your head around,” Serpa said.
The business owners have since filed formal complaints with the state’s R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, which acts as an arbitrator overseeing disputes between the utility and customers. The division has scheduled hearings for Cola Foods and Little Sister in the coming weeks.
“I am not convinced that the bills are legitimate,” Pagan said earlier this year. “I am not convinced they’re correct, and so I can’t pay them until I’m convinced.”
As of Thursday, Burke had not yet filed his own version of the bill on the Senate side, but he told Target 12 the legislation will be submitted in the coming weeks. He highlighted that the bill — if approved — would also help protect homeowners and renters, arguing utility costs often trickle down.
“When you have bills like this, especially for landlords, it goes down to their renters and the tenants and they end up paying the bill,” Burke said.
The General Assembly is trying to conclude the current legislative session by mid-June, raising questions about whether Serpa’s bill will garner the support necessary to pass the legislature this year. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi spokesperson Larry Berman said the speaker was still reviewing the legislation.
In the event the bill doesn’t pass this session, Serpa said she would continue to monitor the issue throughout the year and she committed to reintroducing the legislation in January — especially if Rhode Island billing practices don’t improve. She argued current practices aren’t fair to consumers, especially in a the high-inflationary environment.
“Everything has gone up, including electricity, and I don’t think people can absorb $100 to $200 in their budget,” she said.
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Sarah Guernelli (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the consumer investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.