Philadelphia Gas Works woes continue : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

May 2, 2000

It didn't pay to pay PGW

by Mark McDonald Daily News Staff Writer

Ed Portnof, a Long Island apartment owner with properties in New York and New Jersey, has paid his PGW bills for the 41-unit Queen Lane Manor on a budget plan for almost 10 years.

Some time last winter, Portnof's firm, Coneast Properties, of Great Neck, L.I., stopped receiving a PGW bill. No matter, Portnof kept sending in his check, which the city-owned utility promptly cashed.

But last Tuesday he got a frantic call that the gas to his four-story building on Queen Lane near Wissahickon Avenue had been turned off. Heat and hot water were gone, and tenants were irate.

What followed was one ratepayer's sojourn in the world of the Philadelphia Gas Works, for more than a month now under the management of the new Street administration team "action plan" to remedy a flawed billing and computer system and a financial mess that threatens the company's bond rating.

Portnof doesn't care about any of that.

It took him until midday Thursday to get the gas flowing again. And a fuming Portnof, who fears that his property will suffer a loss of reputation among the students and staff at nearby Medical College of Pennsylvania who tend to rent at his address, is considering legal action.

Like thousands of other ratepayers, Portnof and his staff came face to face with a utility that has been driving city residents to distraction at least since last summer, when PGW shut down its computer software and replaced it with a new system that has yet to work properly and could end up costing the company $20 million more than it had planned.

But it wasn't just computer software that bothered Portnof. Time after time Portnof's staff called PGW only to end up waiting or to be directed to a voice mail. When they got through, they encountered what he contended were arrogant billing officials.

"These are bad guys, very bad. You try to reach them, you might as well try calling the pope," he said.

Eventually, he learned that the new computer system had inadvertently removed him from the budget billing plan. "They apparently took us off the budget plan but failed to inform us of that. They also lost our address," he said.

Harvey Clark, a PGW spokesman, confirmed that the company's new computer system inadvertently removed Portnof's company from the budget plan, that the utility did lose Portnof's address and that Portnof had never been delinquent in his bills.

The first shutoff notice based on a supposed overdue bill was sent to the apartment building on March 8, not the Long Island address of the company. When the first shutoff date passed on March 20, Clark said the company posted a cutoff notice on the building and every apartment door inside.

But Randolph Floyd, the live-in resident manager at the building for the last nine years, said: "I can tell you with certainty that it's not true. I am here every day and there were no notices posted. If I had seen one, I would have faxed it immediately."

Moreover, he said every tenant has a toll-free number to contact Portnof's office.

Another notice and cutoff date of April 20 was sent out by PGW, Clark said, but with similar impact.

Floyd said the gas outage from early Tuesday until Thursday was preceded by a mechanical problem with the hot-water system in the building, a breakdown that began on Sunday morning and stretched into Monday.

Not until Tuesday, when the plumber tried to fire up the system, did they discover that there was no gas, he said.

The only way Portnof could get a PGW employee to come to the apartment building was to have a staffer call a PGW emergency number and falsely say that there was a gas leak. PGW promptly sent a crew, but they never turned on the gas.

"We understand we have a problem with the budget customers," Clark said. "Even Kumar Kishinchand," PGW's interim CEO appointed in mid-March by Mayor Street, "was kicked off the budget plan. We understand we need to correct this for the people who have been inconvenienced."

But Clark said the company never heard from a tenant or the owner from March 8 to last Tuesday.

"I don't see how it was possible that nobody knew there was a potential problem and couldn't have notified management," he said. "We did make a good-faith effort."

Floyd reiterated that he never received a shutoff notice, in March or April.

Chris Kimmerle, executive director of the Philadelphia Gas Commission, said the company's information technology system remains in shambles.

But the regulatory system requires PGW to post a notice of an impending shutoff, a sheet that tells tenants of their rights in dealing with a landlord who doesn't pay utility bills, he said.

"I'm not defending PGW," he said, but assuming notices had been posted, "it seems strange that nobody picked up on the problem."

Portnof said he sent PGW a check for almost $4,500 - money that he should not have been required to send because of the budget plan. He said that twice PGW sent employees to turn the gas back on on Wednesday but they left, saying they lacked a special key. It was only Thursday that they finally returned.

"I've got properties all over and I deal with utilities in many states, and by far, the worst character I've ever come across," Portnof said, "is PGW. They are thugs."

-- Martin Thompson (, May 02, 2000

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