As more Vectren customers in the Columbus area receive their natural gas bills, the uproar over the cost of them is getting louder.
As of Friday, 27 complaints against Vectren had been filed with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission by residents of Bartholomew County — almost seven times more than 10 days earlier, commission spokeswoman Natalie Derrickson said.
On April 7, Vectren spokeswoman Natalie Hedde reported 450 natural gas customers in the Columbus area received higher gas bills, which amounts to 2 percent of their 21,000 Columbus-area customers.
The number of customers with higher bills is likely to increase, Hedde said, even though she wasn’t able to give an updated estimate Friday.
“I don’t want to present 450 as an all-inclusive number,” Hedde said. “When we provided that number, we were still in a billing cycle, and still had customers yet to be billed.
“The April 7 estimate was only what Vectren was able to analyze at that time.”
The estimate was made from Columbus-area customers with bills higher than $200 who likely did not have their proper usage recorded earlier in the winter, Hedde said.
The bills received in March were updated to include charges that customers incurred in prior months but did not pay, Hedde said.
The utility maintains the problem was primarily the result of a contracted meter reader who reported erroneously low readings on customers bills for up to three months.
Although Hedde said Friday she could not identify the contractor whose employee misread the meter, she said the company employs about 150 meter readers in Indiana and Ohio.
The worker who was responsible for the mistakes in the Columbus area was responsible for reading 7,700 Vectren meters in the Columbus Municipal District, representing 37 percent of the 21,000 Vectren subscribers in Bartholomew County.
A colder-than-normal February also was cited by Vectren officials for higher heating bills.
Although Vectren is continuing to analyze the problem, more time will be needed before the complete number of affected homes and businesses are known, Hedde said.
However, retired Presbyterian minister Wayne Hanrattie said he has reason to believe the number of affected customers in Columbus will be much higher than most people anticipate.
As he was doing door-to-door political canvasing along Chestnut Street earlier this month, virtually every person he talked to complained of substantially higher heating bills, Hanrattie said.
Lance and Jerri Chalfant, a retired couple living on Regency Drive, said they saw their gas bill go from an average of $63 in January and February up to $263 in March.
After a Vectren representative examined their meter, the Chalfants were assured the amount on their bill was correct, Jerri Chalfant said.
In response, the couple assured the representative they had just spent the winter in Alabama, nobody had even been in their house for two months, and the thermostat was kept at 60 degrees.
“While we know the amount was wrong, we still paid the bill,” Jerri Chalfant said. “They’ve got you over a barrel. Where else are you going to go?”
Two other Columbus residents, Ruth Shipman and Tina Goforth, said that when they contacted Vectren, a representative lectured both women they should have noticed their bills were lower than normal and expected a much larger bill.
While Shipman said the utility shouldn’t make customers pay for their mistakes, she also expressed the same sense of helplessness as Chalfant.
“My hands are tied, and we have no recourse but to simply pay the bill,” Shipman said. “But what if it happens again? What can we do?”
Meanwhile, Vectren is doing more than just attempting to find out how many customers were affected by the problem, Hedde said.
“As we continue to run further analysis, we are continuing to seriously consider technology driven enhancements, such as automated meter reading in an effort to prevent this from happening in the future,” Hedde said.
All complaints against Vectren on this particular issue appear to originate in Bartholomew and Decatur counties, Derrickson said Friday.
About the same number of customers in Decatur County have received higher-than-usual gas bills.
While the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission investigates complaints, Derrickson advises residents and business owners to first attempt to resolve the issue directly with the utility.
Vectren is encouraging customers who will have a hardship paying bills that were affected by a company error to call the company at 800-227-1376, or to do a live chat at vectren.com to make payment arrangements.
The Consumer Affairs Division of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission provides dispute-resolution services for customers of jurisdictional utilities.
There are three ways to file a complaint:
- Complete an online complaint form at in.gov/iurc
- Call the IURC Consumer Affairs line at 1-800-851-4268 between 8:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. weekdays
- File a formal petition with the IURC.
However, prior to initiating a complaint, the IURC advises customers to first attempt to resolve the issue directly with the utility.