News Feature | April 13, 2017

For Utility, Customer Complaints Spur Regulatory Action

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

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Water utilities are highly regulated, and that means unhappy customers can bring more than complaints — they can stir up regulatory action.

The experience of Arnold Line Water Association in Mississippi provides a case study on the legal tangle a utility can find itself in as a result of customer discontent.

Terrence Lynch, an Arnold Line customer for about four years, is part of the unhappy customer base.

“He has watched his bill increase, had his water turned off and been told he could not pay his bill without his account number,” WDAM reported.

It turns out Lynch is not alone. Sam Britton, an official with the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates water utilities, says the agency has received around 150 complaints about the utility. The commission, like water regulators in other states, has the authority to regulate quality of service issues, including rules for when a water utility can disconnect service.

Regulators approached the utility in an attempt to compel changes to utility bylaws, but since the utility refused, PSC held a formal hearing on the issue in January, WDAM previously reported.

“Arnold Line President C.R. Dixon testified Jan. 19 in Jackson, defending the water association’s legal position after not complying with the advised changes set out by the PSC in November 2016,” the report said.

Dixon has said the utility is already complying with utility rules.

"Voted to not comply with them because we feel like that our policies and procedures are like everybody else’s," Dixon said, per WDAM. "We don't vary from them for nobody.”

But a hearing officer ruled last month that the utility “violated customer service regulations," according to Hub City Spokes.

The utility responded by requesting a partial exception to the decision, arguing the commission lacks jurisdiction to order certain changes and that the changes would saddle the utility with an undue burden, according to the Hattiesburg American. It said the cost of compliance would necessitate a rate change, noting that the commission cannot regulate rates.

In the exception filed March 21, the utility says it will not follow orders to take down signage “and remove language that says customers must have their account number to pay their bill,” the report said. It also fought the decision that it must take certain steps before continuing to cut off water service for sewer non-payment.

The utility agreed, however, “to advise customers of their right to file a complaint with the commission if there is a decision by the Arnold Line Water Association board unfavorable to the customer. It also agreed to change some notations in its bylaws regarding Mississippi Code,” the report said.

The case is now expected to go before the PSC for review, according to the report.

Commissioner Britton spoke out about the utility to the Hattiesburg American after it filed the exception this month. "This issue is about treating people fairly and with respect," Britton said.

"It is not the responsibility of the customer to ensure systems of the utility run efficiently. That is the responsibility of the utility. It is unfair for customers to suffer consequences and pay for the inefficiencies in a utility's system,” he said, per the report.

The American Water Works Association provides utilities with tools to maintain a high level of customer service, including the customer service certificate program

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Consumer Outreach Solutions Center.

Image credit: "old taps," dineshraj goomany © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/