Questar customers should share blame

By By Zach Edmunds and By Zach Edmunds

By Zach Edmunds

In the past few years, Questar has equipped all of its customers’ meters with a device called a transponder, which measures usage using a radio signal. This enables the company’s meter readers to drive down streets and collect data rather than going meter to meter. Questar spokesperson Darren Shepherd said he estimates transponders save customers about $5.2 million every year.

Some of these transponders, however, have been reading half the amount of gas that customers have been using. This was the case for 562 Utah households and small businesses. Questar’s attempt to have customers pay for this mistake has caused some problems.

The money in question adds up to about $1 million. Questar is asking its normal customers to pay about $33,000, and is asking another $210,000 from underbilled customers, which is an additional 40 cents a month per average customer. Meanwhile, Questar will take a hit of $480,000 on its end for the undercharge.

“We understand completely,” Shepherd said. “No one wants to feel like they have to pay for someone else’s mistake. However, we are different from a private retail business because we are not marking up our product to account for mistakes. We try to keep prices as low as possible and pass the savings on to customers dollar for dollar with no markup.”

Because transponders are a new technology, there are no laws about back-billing customers. The same situation on the old system would allow Questar to bill undercharged payments between six and 24 months in the past depending on the situation. Again, with the new system, there is no set policy in place.

After working with the Utah Committee Consumer Services and the Public Service Commission of Utah, Questar has come up with a policy that will allow the company to back-bill those who underpaid. The company and these agencies decided on only six months in which they would back-bill customers. Any other billing mistakes before then will be nullified, which is potentially beneficial for customers who have been underbilled for years.

Customers of Questar who were underbilled are balking at the idea of making up for Questar’s mistake. But imagine if Questar overcharged its customers for a few years. If the customers could only get six months of their money back, they would be irate.

Roger Ball, co-founder of the Utah Ratepayers Association, said “Instead of $1 million, it could easily be $5 (million) and may even be more than that.”

Ball said that since 2003 or possibly earlier, underbilling has taken place among all Questar customers month to month. Usually Questar just adds minor underbilling to the customer’s next bill.

The real losers in this situation are the customers who have to pick up the bill for the customers who underpaid. Although it will only be 40 cents per customer, the principle of the matter is troubling. Questar doesn’t mark up its prices, but it also doesn’t have any competition, which means customers have no other choice when Questar needs to make up revenue and passes the bill to its customers.

Questar customers should be mad at neighbors who had a bill for natural gas that was half the normal price for years and said nothing about it. The Public Service Commission and the Committee of Commerce, who sided more with the 562 underbilled customers and Questar than with the almost 900,000 Questar customers who are footing the bill, also deserve some blame.

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Zach Edmunds