Michael Puorro had heard stories of high electric bills before, but nothing prepared the North Bellmore retiree for the PSEG Long Island bill he received April 23: $13,647.05 for six years of back service the utility says was the result of a meter that had been tampered with.
Puorro, 76, denies ever having altered the meter but faces back charges of $800 a month for 18 months, on top of new electric bills that rose to more than $150 a month -- three to eight times higher than what he previously paid -- plus $400 for the cost of PSEG's meter investigation.
He said he can't afford the charges. "We're on Social Security, that's what we got," he said.
PSEG spokesman Jeff Weir said the utility had meter data that backed up the tampering charge dating to 2005. For a November 2005 bill for 100 days of usage, the Puorros were billed for 423 kilowatt-hours, Weir said, when appliances in their home should have used 3,567 kilowatt-hours. The LIPA tariff allows PSEG to back-bill customers for only six years of unbilled usage.
In March, PSEG says, a meter reader noticed a screw on the device appeared to have been adjusted. She reported it, and later that month, a PSEG investigator found the meter seal cut, the inner seal broken and an adjustment screw backed out "well beyond the normal range," Weir said. The screw sets the meter dial moving faster or slower.
Said Puorro, "I don't know anything like that."
PSEG isn't directly accusing the Puorros of theft of services but said the condition of the meter left little doubt something was amiss.
"With the evidence we have, there's no denying the meter was tampered with," Weir said. "I don't know who did it . . . I'm not going to accuse him specifically. I just know he benefited from it."
Puorro, who moved into the house in 1975, said, "Why should it take them 35 years to find out there was a bad meter in my house?"
Puorro said he can only guess that the device may have gone on the fritz after it was removed years ago when he had work done on the house. "They had to move the box to do the aluminum siding," he said.
Weir credited the "keen eye of a meter reader" for detecting the problem. He said the meter is in the Puorros' yard with a dog, so workers for years had to read it over a fence.
PSEG says there were 963 suspected cases of tampering in 2014. After investigations, 122 of them were found to be actual tampering. Weir said PSEG is aware of about $528,000 being lost annually to electricity theft, part of which is attributable to meter tampering.
"That's a direct burden on all the other customers we have," he said. "By preventing meter tampering we're helping to further bring about rate stability for our customers."
Puorro said he and his wife, 68, both were recently hospitalized, he for heart problems, she for breast cancer. He depends on a nebulizer and breathing machine.
"They were going to shut me off but my doctor wrote a letter saying I needed the machines" to breathe, he said. The new meter has a medical seal preventing the utility from shutting off the power, Puorro said.
Weir said the company "looked at this in the fairest possible way to make sure we were taking their whole condition into consideration," including health and financial issues.
Puorro said it's the first time he's been in arrears on an electric bill, and suspects that he will remain so until the matter is settled. He's brought the case to the Long Island office of the Department of Public Service, which declined to discuss it.
PSEG said the Puorros can apply for special assistance to help defray the costs. Thus far, Weir said, they haven't applied.