MILFORD — Gail Uberti likely summed up the feelings of the more than 75 people who packed City Hall to voice their displeasure Wednesday night over soaring utility bills.
“I feel held hostage by the power company,” Uberti testified to Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) Commissioner Michael Caron. “This hostage is hoping you will do something for me.”
Uberti, of Milford, and dozens like her, shared their horror stories over their utility bills, in particular singling out North American Power, which is one of the suppliers available in the state’s electricity exchange. People testified to Caron that their energy rates have been skyrocketing, and they are paying more than ever for energy consumption.
PURA announced on Friday it has “opened a docket” to look into complaints from consumers and had scheduled five public hearings around Connecticut to learn about consumers’ experiences with electricity suppliers. Wednesday’s hearing in Milford was the first of the five.
Office of Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz has said her office has received many complaints about skyrocketing electric rates from people who “felt they were taken advantage of.” Katz pledged that PURA is performing a thorough investigation.
Caron said Wednesday night that the number of complaints has more than doubled from a year ago. He said his staff sometimes has difficulty keeping up with the sheer volume of complaints.
Kristie Lee, of Meriden, who works in New Haven, said she attended Wednesday’s hearing because she has been “hurt” by North American Power since selecting the company as her provider through the exchange. She said that her seemingly low fixed rate of 7.99 cents per kWh suddenly almost tripled to 20 cents per kWh.
Lee said her utility bill jumped from $50 a month to $300. She said she had a fixed contract that should have lasted her through March, and she has since filed a complaint with the State Attorney General’s office.
Karin Ascue, of Bridgeport, said she purchased electricity from a new supplier on the exchange and what started out initially as a good deal, quickly turned into a nightmare.
“My bill was $250 and then it went to $500 and now it’s $705,” Ascue said.
The company’s explanation was that it had to charge more in the winter time, she said.
“This is my mom’s electric bill,” Ascue said. “She can’t afford it. It’s outrageous.”
Dorothy Kosiewicz, of Milford, said she attended the hearing Wednesday because she’s heard the horror stories. She purchased electricity from Dominion Virginia Power, and her experience thus far as been good.
“I wanted to learn how they go about it,” Kosiewicz said. “Why can’t United Illuminating just give us the best rate? If UI is so big why can’t they purchase it for less?”
Cynthia Fox, of Milford, said her bill is “outrageous.” She purchased power through North American Power and the rates have since doubled. She is most angered that the company only told her rates could vary after she signed the initial contract.
Caron, who spoke before the hearing, said he was very pleased with the turnout. He said Wednesday’s forum was akin to a court hearing as everyone was sworn in.
Because the case is pending, Caron said he couldn’t comment on specifics. But he said PURA will look to determine if anything illegal occurred. He said PURA also will examine the kinds of contracts discount power providers are using to sign new customers.
William Soisson, of Stratford, said he’s been calling North American Power since September because he says he’s been consistently overcharged. He said each time the company admitted they made a mistake, but in December representatives stopped returning his phone calls and emails.
“I’m unhappy because I’ve been overcharged $68 in the past four months,” Soisson said.
Alan Natale, of Milford, said North American Power tripled his rates, which were supposed to be fixed. His bill increased from $241 to $498 a month. Changing providers will take one to two months, and he said he simply can’t afford to continue to pay those high rates.
“This is very concerning to me,” Natale said, adding that he received a flyer from North American Power today offering a low rate.
“It’s just not fair,” Natale said.
Tom Young, of Stamford, produced a $1,029 utility bill from North American Power.
“As of Monday, they are no longer my supplier,” Young testified, adding that Connecticut Light & Power Co. should be able to bid for power as well as any other company. “It’s crazy to have half the industry regulated and not the other half.”
Alan Parcells, of Madison, bluntly told Caron that he feels like the “victim of a scam.” Starion Energy almost tripled his rates and his utility bill more than doubled from $162 to $382 a month.
“They told me I can’t get out of my contract for another three months. They offered me a fixed rate . . . and told me I could terminate the contract after three months by paying a $100 termination fee.”
Reached Wednesday night about the complaints voiced at the hearing, North American Power Spokeswoman Tiffany Eddy emailed the following statement:
“North American Power is committed to providing an exceptional customer experience, which includes ensuring that our customers that have signed up for one of our fixed rates receive that rate for the specified fixed term. While instances of a customer receiving the incorrect rate are rare, when it does happen we do our best to correct the error with the customer, and work to prevent similar errors in the future.”
Meanwhile, the General Assembly has already been hearing from consumers. State Sen. President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, have proposed several ways of making the process more transparent by requiring more disclosure by the suppliers.
Williams and Sharkey are seeking to require additional, prominently printed information on electric bills, including notification of rate increases, date of auto-renewal and any cancellation fees.
The two Democratic caucus leaders are seeking to print standard offer rates on every bill next to the applicable private supplier rate, and to require online bills to display the same information as is required on printed bills.
The also want PURA to establish an online marketplace where customers can more easily compare all private electric supplier offers and purchase directly through the marketplace. Currently, rate comparison information is already available at the ctenergyinfo.com website: www.ctenergyinfo.com/compare-energy-suppliers
Charles Walters, of Hamden, said he believes the process is backward.
“When UI raises its rates we are informed but these companies, we have little information about them,” Walters said, adding that he doesn’t understand why the new suppliers don’t report to PURA.
Additional hearings are scheduled:
Tonight (THURSDAY), 6:30 p.m. at the Farmington Community Senior Center, 321 New Britain Ave., Unionville
Monday, Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m. in Room 135, Brookfield Town Hall, 100 Pocono Road, Brookfield
Tuesday, Feb. 25, 6:30 p.m. in the Norwich City Hall, 100 Broadway, Norwich
Thursday, Feb. 27, 6:30 p.m. in the City Hall Building, Veterans Memorial Hall – 2nd Floor, 235 Grand St., Waterbury.
Brian McCready spent most of his career at the New Haven Register and is now editor and publisher of Milford-Now.com.