Problem Solvers investigate high estimated Consumers Energy bills

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Consumers Energy is working at a fever pitch to address numerous complaints over big bills connected to estimated usage readings. The utility is installing smart meters, which eliminate the need for estimated bills.

“Our goal is to get them read between now and the end of April,” said Roger Morgenstern of Consumer’s Energy. "So, while we appreciate the report we put together for the commission, we are not waiting to act. We are acting now."

A FOX 17 Problem Solvers Investigation helped lead to a probe from the state into the sky-rocketing bills from Consumers Energy. Consumers filed a 66-page report in early February after an internal investigation.

Now the state is reviewing Consumers Energy’s findings to see if a real fix is in the works. The state said it will release a review in mid-May.

So for now, it’s a waiting game. One thing to keep in mind is that despite whatever recommendations the state makes, Consumers can take it or leave it unless a commissioner tells them they need to make changes. There is no deadline on when or if that will even happen.

FOX 17 Problem Solvers started to look into the problem back in September when three neighbors, Dana Berry, Jeff Boone, and Christina Mccaid, were slapped with bills as high as $5,000 for electricity in their mobile homes. Those bills were 13 times higher than their normal bills.

It wasn’t long before Problem Solvers received many more emails, Facebook messages, and voicemails from other Consumers Energy customers who experienced the same problem.

“FOX 17 drew our attention to it,” said Judy Palnau of the Michigan Public Service Commission.

FOX 17 went back to Consumers Energy with a stack of complaints and comments from serious viewers. At that time, Consumers told FOX 17 News that only 26,000 people were affected by estimated reads. They assured us there was no staffing problem or discipline issue with meter readers. At the time, they told us there was no limit to how long they could estimate someone’s bill.

Consumers said the reason for most of the estimated bills was accessibility, weather, and the presence of dogs near meters.

A few months later, the state launched an investigation into Consumers' estimated bill practices. The report from Consumers said 170,000 people were getting their bills estimated per month, far more than what they told FOX 17 Problem Solvers. The report indicated that the utility is trying to reduce aestimated reads as much as possible.

“What we are really trying to do is virtually eliminate the estimations,” said Morgenstern. "If we do estimated, we don’t estimate for long periods of time."

The report showed that Consumers meter readers have a 60 percent turnover rate. Consumers said they didn’t have has many meter readers for homes year round as they originally thought they did.

“The meter reader job is an entry level position, so that's the ebb and flow of any business when you have employees coming in and leaving and getting promoted,” said Morgenstern.

Consumers told us months ago of an effort to get an actual meter reading for every home, but last week they said there were certain codes that keep them from making an actual read every month.

“We are going to make an effort to read a meter every month. That may mean we are at a premises where we can't get in, but we are going to make an effort."

Consumers Energy's big message is they are already working on the readings problem before the commission has to ask them.

“As for the overall customer trust, we know we have fallen down, and we need to earn that trust, because we think, with these policies in place, we are going to make it right,” said Morgenstern. "We are going to show our customers we mean business and make this right. We will earn back any respect we may have lost."

Consumers Energy has moved up the installation of the rest of the smart meters by a year. They have about a million left to install by the end of 2017.

Meanwhile, Consumers will begin making actual reads more regularly. Consumers is also letting anyone with a high estimated bill to pay back the balance owed over the same amount of time their meter went without an actual read.

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4 comments

  • Kevin Rahe

    So does anyone know the outcome of the suit brought against Consumers last year by Attorney General Schuette when they tried to push through a rate increase to cover the cost of “smart” meters, which would even have been imposed on those of us paying to opt OUT of the program?

    For that matter, how many people realize that, based on figures from the industry itself, it will take over 40 years on average to pay for a smart meter from the savings in the cost of manually reading a meter alone? I don’t think they can wait that long to be compensated for the cost of these things. The only remaining question is whether the reason for the rate increase that covers their cost will be acknowledged, or if it will be buried (such as in the recent significant rate increase that is, ostensibly at least, for other reasons). What a colossal rip-off of Michigan residents.

  • Angie Scott

    I am still being ripped off by consumers. First they shut me off without even sending me a shut off notice. When the consumer’s energy field employee came to my home I told him I was unaware due to the lack of communication and I would make my $240 payment right now via the phone. He told me no, laughed that I was getting disconnected and refused to give me his name when asked. My $240 then turned into over $500. The representative at the call center did work with me as far as removing my reconnect fee as well as a security deposit if I paid my total bill which was $526. I made this payment on 8/16/2016 and again was told my balance was $0 and my next meter read date was 9/9/2016. Then today, 8/17/16 I received an email telling me I owed $393 by 9/7/16. I called and they are telling me my current month wasn’t added in when they originally told me it was. There are a few problems that I see with this scenario. First, they shut me off with out a phone call/letter. Second, the tech would not even allow me to make a payment and found enjoyment in watching a single mother and her children suffer. Third, I was told pay this amount and I’d be good until after my next meter read in September. Fourth, they are charging me prior to this date and they are charging me more than double of what my monthly bill usually is. My average monthly bill is $180. Consumer’s Energy continues to rip people off and are getting away with it. As an American Citizen and a Citizen of the State of Michigan you are being forced to either get ripped off or suffer without electricity. I have used DTE in the past for energy at a prior address and never got charged anything close to this amount and it was a MUCH larger home, nearly double in size. We need to work together as citizens and get Consumer’s Energy out of our country as I know I am not the only one they do this to. I have read many complaints similar to mine and cannot believe our country is allowing them to still have control over our living circumstances. This has got to stop.

    • Hollie

      I just got an actual amount bill that is ridiculous. They told me that they estimated me all summer and now they did and actual reading and there was 1000 kilowatt that was used and unpaid. I don’t believe it. I’ve been using the same amount of energy give or take $10 since February. I use fans all year around and no air conditioners. I use the same amount yet still I was somehow using more kilowatts while they estimated me in the summer. I have the same bill when they give me an actual reading and an estimate. It’s bull and I should not be responsible to pay something I didn’t use. Is there anyway to prove that the meter they took out to replace the smart meter with was wrong. I need help. Please and thank you.