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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Consumers should not be on the hook for the mistakes of utility companies

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Cherrish Pryor
Cherrish Pryor

By State Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis), State Rep. John L. Bartlett (D-Indianapolis) and Chair of the Indiana Black Leadership Caucus, State Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago)

Let us describe an issue with a business operating in our community. They provide a service that you pay for monthly. A few months ago, they upgraded their interface system which made the service more expensive. Since that change, customers have experienced issues such as their monthly bills withdrawn ten times from their bank account, and waiting months for the refund. Other customers have been told they have missed several payments, despite the money being withdrawn from their bank accounts. On top of that, more customers have seen random charges or unexplained increases up to 3 times the amount with no explanation.

John L. Bartlett

Why don’t consumers just switch companies or stop using the service? Here is the kicker: This service is something that everyone needs to survive, and this company is the only one allowed to sell it here. Sounds crazy? We just described the situation with our Indianapolis electric company, Applied Energy Services Corporation, or AES Indiana. 

If a company makes a mistake and charges customers multiple times or an amount higher than agreed upon with no explanation, that should not go unanswered. There is no excuse for money to be unfairly taken from someone’s bank account due to a faulty system and held for weeks. At most, there should be a 48-hour deadline for utility companies to issue refunds to consumers when they are overcharged due to a company mistake. The fact that AES wants to up their rates in part to cover the cost of a system “upgrade” this flawed is astounding. 

Utility companies in Indiana operate by a different set of rules than any other industry. Instead of being subject to the natural rules of the free market that say overpriced, poor service will be bad for business, utilities are a regulated monopoly. This means, no matter how terrible you are treated by AES, the only alternative is to go without power, which is obviously not a viable option. It is up to lawmakers to protect the wallets and the wellbeing of residents in Indiana. 

Earl Harris Jr.

A member of the Indiana Black Leadership Caucus (IBLC) proposed several measures this session that would stabilize utility bills so families could keep more of their hard-earned money. One of these measures was the effort by State Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis) that would put a one-year freeze on the ability of utility companies to request a rate increase and charge punitive reconnection fees. Last year, all of Indiana’s major utility companies, including AES, asked the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) to allow them to raise rates on their customers. 

Another amendment proposed by Rep. Pryor would have eliminated punitive, predatory reconnection fees for a year so Hoosiers could catch their breath and AES could figure out their system failure. For those struggling to make ends meet, getting slapped with a $250 fine to turn their lights back on in the dead of winter, or possibly even their heat, means that another necessity must be sacrificed. What should these people be expected to give up? Food? Medication? 

Both of these amendments were struck down on procedural grounds. Housing affordability was a priority agenda item for both the House Democratic Caucus and the IBLC. This legislature has enacted policies year after year that benefit utility companies and their shareholders at the expense of consumers. It is high time for the General Assembly to act in the best interest of our constituents, not corporations. 

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