Judy Cartwright Judy Cartwright

Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column

In late 2013 Carol Sykes' household bill for natural gas jumped inexplicably.

The monthly bills from National Grid had been growing during the year, from $130 to $141, then $155 and up to $170. Those increases were understandable.

The next month's wasn't.

"I started getting bills for ridiculous amounts," Sykes said when we first spoke in January. "They were changing my budget [billing] to $1,500 a month. At one point they said I owed them $30,000."

The increase came without explanation.

For the budget-billing year that ended October 2013, a NatGrid statement said her account was "$5.79 in your favor," and her Patchogue home had used 1,111 therms -- the measure of gas usage -- for the year.

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Monthly usage jumped to 806 therms in the November 2013 billing period.

"Then, one month, it [the bill] was 1,152 therms, just for the month," she said. "It started to go crazy."

February 2014 was 776 therms. March 2014, a whopping 2,859. Those numbers translated into thousands of dollars a month.

Sykes made frequent calls to the offices of NatGrid but said she couldn't get past customer service. Adding to the frustration: Each time she would speak with a different customer service rep, which meant each time she would have to start at the beginning. And each time the call would end without resolution.

"That whole year I was just dealing with customer service reps. My information went into the computer, but it went nowhere."

The balance on her bill grew to more than $30,000. Cutoff notices arrived in the mail.

Then, in August, NatGrid told her to talk to another company, Gateway Energy, an energy services company known as ESCO. Sykes said the NatGrid representative told her Gateway "is the one supplying the gas, we're just the servicer."

She called Gateway.

"They kept passing me along from person to person until one day I got semi-hysterical. They turned me over to a complaint department."

She left a voice mail. "She was nice enough to call me back. I was thrilled. I thought now we're going to get somewhere." And she spoke to a supervisor. But the discussions went nowhere.

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In February we contacted NatGrid and were told the billing problem started with a faulty meter reading.

The household "had a meter read that was incorrect," spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said. "It has been corrected. We are now working with the ESCO to make sure the bills are corrected."

A month later, Ladd told us that a company representative has "been in touch with Mrs. Sykes. The ESCO portion needs to be rectified and that is still being worked on."

In early April, Sykes told us that a NatGrid representative told her she should call Gateway again. We called Gateway on April 8 and reached a variety of offices and locations, and got nowhere. By now, Sykes had been making calls for almost a year and a half. We called NatGrid again.

On April 10, she got the call she had been waiting for.

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A NatGrid representative "said they take full responsibility," she said.

The representative told her the problem "started with the [meter] misreading," she said, then was made worse by a computer system that did not communicate properly with energy service companies.

"So what he explained to me was that each time I inquired and a customer service rep went into the system, it escalated the situation . . . the information wasn't conveyed properly to ESCO."

She was told the balance would be adjusted and reflected in the next billing statement due later this month. NatGrid's Ladd said she anticipates a balance will be due but it will be far less than the numbers cited in earlier bills.

Balance aside, Sykes has been paying monthly charges for "total delivery services" (NatGrid) and "total supply services" (Gateway). A recent bill amounted to more than $300.

"We've been on budget billing since the beginning," she said. No more. "I think I'll go off the budget [plan] so I can pay for usage each month."

 

By the time you're reading this, I will be out the door. It's time to retire.

I spent more than 36 years at Newsday, the last 3 1/2 on this assignment. It took me to traffic intersections with red-light cameras, snowed-in bus stops, debris-filled drainage basins and, in the past year, schools with speed cameras.

For everyone who took the time to tell me about issues that raised their ire, and to those who investigated solutions or took the time to explain why the status quo was the best deal available:

Thank you all.

 

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