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Questar Gas' Back-Billing on Error Draws Fire in Utah

Faulty wireless meter-reading transponders are the source of a controversy brewing in Utah between Questar Gas and its customers and advocacy groups as the utility attempts to back-bill approximately 500 of its customers nearly $500,000.

About 10 years ago Questar Gas employees and contractors started installing radio transponders on gas meters to allow for drive-by meter reads. Questar Gas said the move increased billing accuracy and reduced meter-reading costs by 41%. However, in about 500 cases the transponders weren't set correctly, so the readings transmitted to computers in Questar Gas trucks were only half what they should have been. New software installed in November 2007 recently identified the problem and Questar Gas notified the affected customers "as soon as we found out." However, the company noted that it could have handled the situation better.

"On behalf of Questar Gas Co., I want to apologize for the inconvenience and frustration caused by a bill sent to you that reflected an adjustment for an underbilling that occurred on your account," Ron Jibson, executive vice president of Questar Gas, wrote in an April 2 letter to customers. "This issue regarding an inaccurate transponder that was placed on your meter was not handled in a manner that reflects our standard of customer service."

Jibson said the utility is treating the back-billed amounts as disputed, which means that customers will not need to make any payments on their back-billed amount until a full investigation into this issue has been completed by the Utah Public Service Commission (PSC). "When the investigation is complete, we will send you another letter informing you of the steps the company has been directed to take to resolve this issue," he wrote. "If you have paid any of this back-billed adjustment, you may be refunded some or all of what you have paid, with interest, depending on the outcome of the commission's proceeding."

Among others, the Utah Ratepayers Association (URA) has protested the back-billing. The group filed a request last Thursday to intervene with the PSC after the Utah Committee of Consumer Services asked for an investigation. The URA said each of the faulty meter customers apparently received a bill with a correction item in the range of $200 to $2,200 going back as much as two years.

"Some have paid up, or agreed to pay over the next two years," the URA said. "But 43 have complained to the Utah Division of Public Utilities and seven have gone on to file formal complaints with the Public Service Commission of Utah. Questar says that, if it can't get all the money back from the 500 customers, all of its 800,000-plus ratepayers should pay the balance."

The URA noted that Questar has said commission rules allow it to back-bill up to 24 months. However, other rules suggest it may only be able to bill up to six months, or even three months, back, the consumer advocate contends.

"Some think the utility shouldn't be allowed to bill in arrears at all for what they see as a company failure," the URA said. "They point to supermarket and gas station owners and managers who, in the interests of good customer relations, wouldn't think of asking a patron to reimburse an undercharge even thirty seconds after completing a transaction at a register or pump that had been incorrectly programmed."

Questar Gas provides retail gas-distribution service to more than 800,000 customers in Utah, southwestern Wyoming and a small portion of southeastern Idaho.

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