Daphne AL electrical billing errors continue

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February 20, 2000

Electric bills shock some customers 02/20/2000 By JANE NICHOLES Staff Reporter

DAPHNE - Amy Challoner watched last week as her neighbors headed to their Plantation Hills mailboxes and checked their electric bills. They reacted with the same shock as she did when she found that her bill for this month was $218, up from $95 the month before.

She saw one woman clap her hands to her chest. Another woman almost cried.

"The language - I've never heard my neighbors swearing," Challoner said.

Challoner and her neighbors are apparent victims of a billing glitch at Riviera Utilities. Last week, the company began staggering its billing cycle without notifying its customers.

The result, according to General Manager Sewell St. John: some 1,000 Eastern Shore customers received bills for five or six weeks of service, bills that already were higher because of the recent cold snap.

"We would make every effort to work with anyone who has a financial crunch," St. John said Friday. "They have our apologies as well."

Because of the growth in its service base, especially along the Eastern Shore, Riviera intended to switch to staggered billing cycles rather than sending all bills out at the same time of the month. But St. John said the switch was supposed to begin in April and the company intended to send letters notifying customers of the change and letting them know that their bills might be higher or lower in the beginning.

Also, April bills are among the lowest of the year because customers are not dealing with extremes of heat or cold, and the idea was to create as little inconvenience as possible, he said.

"Somehow or other we implemented this a couple of months before it was supposed to take place," St. John said Friday. "I still am not sure exactly how it happened."

However, St. John attributed the mistake to human error, not to the Y2K computer bug or other technical problem.

Riviera serves about 29,000 customers, of which about 16,300 are in the Eastern Shore area. About one-quarter of the Eastern Shore customers received bills covering from as little as two weeks to as much as six weeks of service, St. John said.

The cold snap only made things worse for those who received bills covering five or six weeks, he acknowledged. "I feel certain that this is the reason that they're upset," he said.

Challoner's daughter, Jennifer Andrews, also lives in the Plantation Hills subdivision on U.S. 90. "It seemed like all the electric bills have doubled and tripled," Andrews said.

Andrews' own bill was $275, up from $118 last month. "It's scary when you get a utility bill the size of a car payment," she said.

Riviera's western division office in Daphne has been bombarded with telephone calls from irate customers, so much so that its employees are having trouble getting outside lines to return the calls, St. John said. "We had a continuum of calls, and I think rightfully so," he said.

St. John is asking affected customers to be patient and said their phone calls will be returned eventually.

Although the bills won't be reduced, St. John pledged that no one need worry about having their service disconnected because they cannot immediately pay the unexpectedly high charges.

The customers hit hardest by the high bills will receive letters of apology. Other customers will also receive written notification of the change in the billing cycle, which St. John said cannot be stopped now that implementation has begun, however inadvertently.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 20, 2000

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