When Barry Jones got his electric bill in June, the Independence resident thought perhaps the previous month's bill had been somehow overlooked and didn't get paid.
“I asked my wife, and she said no, we paid it,” Jones said. “At that point, the bill got bigger and bigger.
“I wasn't behind at all; that's what raised the red flag.”
Jones is named on behalf of 57,000 Independence Power & Light customers in a class-action lawsuit filed last week against the city, IPL and others. The lawsuit, filed by the Accurso Law Firm, claims the city and IPL overcharged electric customers and failed to address customer concerns.
The city thus far has been silent on the suit, citing its policy regarding pending or ongoing litigation.
Former IPL Deputy Director Andrew Boatright, Constellation Software Inc., N. Harris Computer Corporation and Advanced Utility Systems also are named as defendants. The final three defendants are involved with the new utility billing system the city rolled out in May. Boatright resigned in June after some 11th-hour budget and staffing drama involving part of the City Council. He had been IPL's acting director for nearly a year.
The city replaced a 30-year-old system and rolled out a new billing system in May, an abnormally warmer month this year and the first of four months when peak-usage rates apply. Complaints about delayed bills and high totals – two or three times the normal, some said – soon followed.
“I went ahead and got on my computer and started looking at previous years in the summer,” Jones said. “It wasn't the rate that was too much, it was the consumption, the kilowatt hours that they logged on my bill.”
“Things just started getting worse and worse as time went on. I just started to talking to friends and relative close by, and I actually shocked to find there was a lot of talk about it on Facebook; I knew I wasn't alone.”
Attorney Chris Accurso said just one customer came to his firm, but based on the number of people clearly affected he knew a class-action suit was more appropriate for his case.
“When I say overcharged, I tried to make it clear it's charging for more electricity than is actually consumed,” he said. “What they're asking for from the customers just doesn't pass the eye test.”
In Jones' case, he said, his bill showed 2,000 kilowatt hours in July, whereas before the new billing system went into place it was about 600. Jones said he was out of town most of July, as well, and went to lengths to power down for that month.
“Since the new billing system took over in May, there was a very notable increase in what they were alleging he is consuming,” Accurso said.
Jones said he hasn't dealt with late-bill statements getting to him, though he knows that has been an issue for many people since May.
Accurso said that if the suit is successful, they would hope to recover each customer's individual amount overcharged, based on readings and actual usage.
He said “a lot of people” have contacted him since the suit was filed, and he's assured them they're already part of the suit.
“We will be requesting copies of their bill, taking down their number and information,” he said of customers that contact him. “We'll keep them in the loop.”
“I was concerned with myself at first,” Jones said. “The further I dug into it, the further I found, more people dealing with this. People facing the choice of rent or electric bill, older people on fixed income having trouble, that's what sparked me to find what can we really do with this.
“A lot of people struggling, people don't know what's happening and this type of exposure can help us get answers.”
When customer complaints started to mount, the city conducted an internal audit, then hired for an outside audit, and those found no widespread calculation errors. As the city worked through billing issues, it allowed a grace period for repayments, abated late fees and delayed shut-offs.
In November, the city said nearly one-third of utility customers, about 18,000, had fallen behind on payments, and more than 5,000 were 90 days past due. The city has said it won't be doing residential shut-offs until after the holidays – focusing first on industrial and commercial customers that are extremely late, as staff can do about 400 shutoffs in a month. Also, the city's cold-weather policy generally means no shut-offs when temperatures are forecasted below freezing.
The City Council recently approved a 2 percent rate decrease to take effect within a couple months and has expressed its hope for further reductions.