In a pre-hearing conference Thursday before a Public Utility Commission judge, the Utility Workers Union of America argued that Penelec has habitually failed to read house meters every other month as required - a failure it says merits a fine and an order to hire more readers.
Lawyers for Penelec argued that the union and its individual plaintiff lack standing and haven't suffered actual harm, and that the commission lacks authority to order the hiring of employees.
The case could have an indirect connection to the recently ended November-to-April lockout of 140 workers - including meter readers - by Penelec, according to the union, a connection the company denies.
The meter reading case could also have an indirect connection with recent cold-weather price spikes, according to the union, although the company dismissed that idea, speaking of a different aspect of the cold-weather increases.
The judge invited lawyers for the parties to submit memos before she rules on the case - which could come before the commission itself eventually.
The Penelec case was one of three discussed at the conference-call discussion before administrative law judge Katrina Dunderdale in Pittsburgh, along with two similar cases alleging too-infrequent meter readings by Penelec's FirstEnergy sister company West Penn.
"We believe all customers have the right to receive accurate bills," union lawyer Scott Rubin told the judge, after explaining that the individual in the case - a retired Penelec worker, a union member and a company customer - had received three consecutive estimated bills around the beginning of this year.
When that happens, large "makeup bills" can cause such customers problems, Rubin said. The company needs to hire more meter readers, he said.
Yet the individual involved in the case "has not pleaded anything that makes him aggrieved," company lawyer Brian Wauhop argued, saying the allegation was a mere technical violation, which doesn't meet the bar for a legitimate case. "A technical violation doesn't equal a hardship or inconvenience," he said.
Moreover, the union's connection with the individual is too tenuous to justify its status as a plaintiff, he argued.
And commission lacks authority to order the company to hire more workers because case law has shown it can't function as a "super board of directors," Wauhop said.
The meter reading problem pre-existed the lockout, Rubin said, after the conference call.
"The lockout may have made it worse," he conceded.
The lockout ended with the workers coming back under the terms of the "last, best and final offer," but the workers returned without approving that contract.
According to First
Energy spokesman Scott Surgeoner, the lockout and the ending of the lockout has no connection with the meter reading case before the commission.
During the lockout, managers and supervisors read meters at a rate comparable with pre-lockout rates, when the regular readers were on duty, according to Surgeoner.
"We had plenty of meter readers," he said.
The meter reading problem could relate to the cold-weather price spikes in connection to FirstEnergy Solutions attempt to impose a one-time surcharge for fixed-rate customers to make up for the company's higher power-purchase costs during the polar vortex - a surcharge opposed in a separate PUC case by the union, according to Rubin.
How could the company justify charging customers extra if it didn't actually read their meters during the "relevant time period?" Rubin asked, while adding that the union hasn't "proposed a linkage" to the PUC.
According to Surgeoner, the meter reading case had no connection with the polar vortex price spikes endured by other companies' variable rate customers whose meters are read by Penelec because those spikes lasted for such a short time.
In a separate meter reading case, Penelec was fined $500 by the PUC, despite a different administrative law judge's dismissal of the case.
It involved a complaint brought by a Philipsburg resident after Penelec estimated his bills for five months in a row, resulting in an "under-collection" of more than $2,000, which the customer was billed for after the company finally got a meter reading.
The judge in the case dismissed it because Penelec actually read the meters as frequently as required, but estimated the customer's bills because of errors made by an employee.
When the case came to the commission, Commissioner Gladys Brown proposed ruling in favor of the complainant, who "received improper billing signals over a five-month period," while the company failed "to provide any good faith explanation as to why the company made these billing errors."
The commission voted to accept Brown's motion recently, according to commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.