Summit Utilities Inc. and state regulators are finalizing the natural gas provider's plan to begin disconnecting customers and charging late-fee penalties later this summer. Summit said more than 43,000 Arkansas homeowners would be subject to shutoffs if the company's disconnect and late-fee penalties were in place today.
The average past-due amount for homeowners is $584, Summit said in a filing with the Public Service Commission on Tuesday.
Summit says a total of more than 47,000 Arkansas ratepayers -- including business and commercial customers -- could be subject to shutoffs if the company's disconnect and late-fee penalties were in place. The average past-due amount for all customers is $647.
"There's not a specific date yet," Michael Marchand, executive director of the commission, said Tuesday of the policies being implemented. "The commission wants to issue another order quickly so people know where they stand."
Attorney General Tim Griffin advocates a cautious approach to buffer ratepayers from costly gas bills.
"As a result of a lengthy and in-depth investigation, the Public Service Commission determined that Summit Utilities may resume disconnections and late charges," Griffin said in a statement Tuesday. "We believe that disconnections and late fees can resume only when the PSC puts appropriate safeguards in place that will allow consumers to pay off past due balances and to be reconnected if their service is turned off this winter."
Last week, Griffin filed testimony noting his office examined 128,292 Summit bills sent to residential and small commercial customers in January. Almost every bill -- 99.6% -- had errors.
The PSC, at Griffin's request, opened an investigation in March to determine how many customers' bills were in error, what those errors were, how many bills have been corrected and how many bills are still wrong.
Summit did not violate any PSC rules as it grappled for about nine months with customer complaints over soaring gas charges and improper billing and payment procedures, according to filings from the attorney general and the commission staff.
And the utility has responded effectively to the issues, Deputy Attorney General Charles Harder noted in testimony filed Tuesday. Summit, he testified, "has changed business processes, added customer-focused employees, and has committed to monitoring its billing and other customer services."
The attorney general also supports Summit's plan to give late-paying customers up to 18 months for repayments, and extending that to 36 months for customers who need financial assistance. Griffin originally had asked for a 36-month relief plan for all late Summit customers.
"If the Commission approves a repayment period of less than three (3) years for customers who would qualify for financial assistance, we recommend that the commission remove barriers to reconnection for ratepayers who are disconnected for non-payment for the upcoming heating season," Harder testified.
On any unpaid balances, Summit should be required to set up a one-time, new 18-month payment plan, the filing said.
After the Summit investigations began in March, the utility announced it would begin disconnects and late fees this month. That plan was rejected by the commission, which granted approval on Monday to restart the policies.
The company had initially suspended service disconnection and late fees last November while it changed over to a new customer service and billing system, a transition that led to the customer complaints.
Summit, based near Denver, Colo., provides natural gas to about 425,000 customers in Arkansas and owns natural gas distribution and transmission subsidiaries in Colorado, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.