Page 1

WINTER 2010

The Consumer Advisor page 3

LifeLine in Jeopardy page 4

Window Installation Keeping Warm pages 8

quarterly newsletter of The

t urning Utility Reform Network, turn

P O I N T S

Big Win for Small Businesses protection from draconian back-billing

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hanks to TURN, small businesses will no the same limits that apply to residential cuslonger be subject to draconian back-billing tomers: three months in cases of utility error. rules, instead enjoying similar protecThe previous rules inexplicably allowed utility tions to the ones TURN has defended for residencompanies to hold small businesses respontial customers. Back-billing often sible for up to three years of Back-billing often occurs due to utility error or meback charges due to utility billter malfunction, and can result occurs due to utility ing or meter error. in huge, unexpected utility bills. “Deposits on top of those error or meter TURN strongly supported AB bills were creating an addi1879, an effort by Assemblyman tional burden for business malfunction. Jim Beal to legislate better backcustomers who were hit with billing rules that is now unnecessary. huge back bills and fell behind on payments,” “Huge back-bills can literally bankrupt small Suetake said. “Now, no additional deposit will businesses without a lot of extra cash,” said TURN be required for a small business to restore serstaff attorney Nina Suetake. TURN advocated for vice in back-billing cases, and all deposits for continued on page 7


T U RNING

points TURN’s membership newsletter

T U RN sta f f e x e cuti v e dir e ct o r

Mark Toney l e g a l dir e ct o r

Bob Finkelstein s e ni o r a tt o rn e y

Michel Peter Florio M a n a g in g a tt o rn e y

Bill Nusbaum s t a f f a tt o rn e y s

Marybelle Ang Marcel Hawiger Matt Freedman Christine Mailloux Bill Nusbaum Hayley Goodson Nina Suetake t e l c o r e s e a rc h dir e ct o r

Regina Costa dir e ct o r o f f in a nc e + o p e r a ti o n s

Richard Perez c o mmunic a ti o n s dir e ct o r

Mindy Spatt o r g a ni z in g dir e ct o r

Ana Montes C o mmunit y o r g a ni z e r

Kori Chen o n l in e a d v o c a c y c o o rdin a t o r

Brianna Chesser a dmini s tr a ti v e / l e g a l a s s i s t a nt

Larry Wong e x e cuti v e / d e v e l o p m e nt a s s i s t a nt

Serrita Teer o r g a ni z in g c o n s u lt a nt

Dwight Cocke T U RN board of dire cto r s p r e s id e nt

Carl Wood tr e a s ur e r

Nettie Hoge s e cr e t a r y

Bill Gallegos Rochelle Becker Richard Chabran Carla J. Peterman Thalia Gonzalez Ingrid Merriweather

Message from TURN’s Executive Director San Bruno Wake-Up Call to CPUC

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violator of federal safety laws? Why has the just can’t help cryCPUC failed to fine PG&E, or even open a foring every time I see mal investigation, into the Rancho Cordova Rene Morales on TV, explosion that killed a customer in his home at the CPUC, or in Sacand injured three others two years ago? ramento, talking about At that time, federal investigators blamed the way her daughter PG&E for failing to act on previous safety Jessica died. Morales has warnings, but it isn’t clear whether their recbeen honoring Jessica’s memory by speakommendations for changes to PG&E’s gas ing out about the 20-year old’s death in the safety practices were ever enforced. gas pipeline explosion on September 9 that On October 22, I led a national delegation killed seven others, injured many and deof consumer advocates to the National stroyed scores of homes. Her bravery and Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washcommitment are awe-inspiring. ington D.C. to deliver several At TURN, we are comthousand petitions signed mitted to making sure that It is simply not by TURN members demandthe engineering, staffing, managerial, and regulatory enough to find out ing a thorough investigation factors that contributed to why the pipeline of all of the factors leading to the San Bruno explosion. the explosion are fully invessprung a leak Joining me in the meeting tigated so that such a tragwith NTSB Vice Chair Chrisedy never happens again. It that ignited into topher Hart and Chief Pipeis simply not enough to find a fireball. line Inspector Robert Trainor out why the pipeline sprung were Marti Thomas Doneghy a leak that ignited into a of AARP, Olivia Wein of National Consumer fireball. We want to know why inspections Law Center, and Charlie Acquard of National of that pipeline never identified the risk Association of State Utility Consumer Advoof a leak, and whether safety is the priority cates (NASUCA). at PG&E. The meeting was reassuring because Vice Did PG&E have enough gas line techniChair Hart made it clear that the NTSB invescians with proper training and experience, tigation would be broad, looking at staffing, with adequate supervision and support, management, maintenance, and regulatory when the explosion took place? Why has oversight issues. As a federal agency, NTSB PG&E failed to complete pipeline repairs has the ability to conduct an unbiased inthat customers were charged for? And has vestigation free from the influence of utility PG&E redirected money from repairs to companies who exert undue influence at the management bonuses, including $5 milstate level upon the CPUC and the legislion to replace a section of Line 132 only lature. But it will fall largely to the CPUC to 2.8 miles from the explosion? enforce its recommendations and sanction TURN especially wants to know why the PG&E if the company is found to be at fault. California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) The deaths of Jessica Morales, former has been asleep at the wheel when it comes CPUC staffer Jackie Greig and her daughter, to its oversight of PG&E. We have long worand five other people are surely a wake-up ried that the CPUC has been unable to fulfill call to PG&E and the CPUC that more must its duty to vigorously defend the public inbe done to put safety first. TURN will redouterest because it is not independent enough ble our efforts as well. from the companies it regulates. Why has the CPUC failed to levy a single fine against PG&E for violations of natural gas safety laws during the past six years, M a r k To n e y, E x e c u t i v e D i re c t o r o f T U R N even though PG&E was the number one

Prepaid Phone Plans H o w t o d e t e rmin e w h ic h p r e p a id p l a n wi l l w o r k f o r y o u

Dear Consumer Advisor; I recently lost my job and need to cut back on expenses, including my cell phone. Rather than signing up for another two years when my contract comes up for renewal I’m thinking about getting a prepaid plan. Are the great prices I see advertised for real? Is this a good way to save money? What kind of plan should I look for? S i n c e r e ly,

Bud Geting Dear Bud, Prepaid is increasing in popularity and is becoming much more widely available. Like any phone service, you need to think realistically about your needs — and read the fine print. Here are some things to look out for:

B e f o re y o u b u y :

Overages. When you go over your minutes, does the phone shut off or does the price go up? If the phone goes off, it should obviously not be your only phone. If the price goes up, how high does it go? Does the company offer any sort of overage insurance?

Coverage. Are the areas you frequently call included in the coverage area? What about areas you occasionally call? If no, what kind of roaming charges will you face? The provider should have coverage maps available so you can see whether your areas are included.

Phone. Try the phone out before you buy, and make sure it appears to work properly and has all the features you want. Who pays for it if it is lost or stolen? Is there an insurance plan and if so, is it worth the cost? How much is replacement cost? Can you return the phone if you are dissatisfied?

Number Portability. You should be able to transfer your old cell phone number to your new phone.

Data Charges. If you’re going to be accessing the internet with your phone, make sure you compare the costs with other plans; some prepaid phones with low rates for texting and calling may have high data charges.

Adding Minutes. How easy is it, and is there a penalty? Does your prepaid provider automatically add more minutes when you run out? If you are using a credit card is it automatically charged every month for the new minutes? If you are manually going to add new minutes what is the procedure to do so?

ASK ANA MONTES TURN members can contact consumer advisor Ana Montes through TURN’s consumer hotline, at 800355-8876, or you can email her at: consumerhotline@turn.org

Return policy. Does the provider allow a 30-day period for returning the phone and cancelling the plan if it doesn’t work for you?

Customer Service. Make sure you find out how to contact customer service if you have a problem.

A f ter y o u b u y :

Don’t get Crammed. If you automatically renew by credit card each month, double check your statement to make sure additional, unauthorized charges have not been “crammed” onto your bill. See page five for more information on cramming by phone companies and tips on how to read your phone bill.

Don’t be afraid to complain. If you’re not getting what you paid for, don’t understand your bill or have other questions, don’t hesitate to call the phone company and ask, and keep asking until you get answers. Make sure to document any problems, and write down dates, times and details of any conversations with customer service.


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Caption here bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla

PHOTO 1 - Lawmaker of the Year, Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes

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PHOTO 2 - Consumer leaders Catalina Dean and Rev. Phil Lawson with Mark Toney PHOTO 3 - TURN Board Chair Carl Wood and Lawmaker of the Year, State Senator Kristine Kehoe

TURN’S 35th Anniversary

PHOTO 4 - State Senator Mark Leno presented the Central City SRO Collaborative’s Award to Elaine Jones PHOTO 5 - Commissioner Diane Grueneich presented Dwight Cocke with his Lifetime Achievement Award PHOTO 6 - Consumer Leaders Minister L.B. Tatum, Phil Lawson, and Cheryl Branch with Carl Wood PHOTO 7 - Mark Toney with Emcee N’Tanya Lee

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v icto ry awa rd s pa rt y N o v e mb e r 1 9 , 2 0 0 9

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he evening’s festivities gathered hundreds of consumers and consumer advocates at the historic Hotel Whitcomb to celebrate some of the most impressive consumer victories of the past year. Guests were enchanted with delightful musical entertainment, a mouth-watering dinner and inspiring stories of leadership and accomplishment on behalf of California’s utility consumers. Lawmaker of the Year awards were presented to State Senator Christine Kehoe and Assembly-

member Felipe Fuentes for their leadership on passing the Ratepayer Protection Act. TURN partners, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches and Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s Central City SRO Collaborative received Consumer Leadership awards for their work to preserve protections for low-income consumers. Consumer activist Dwight Cocke was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement award for his steadfast activism on behalf of consumers, peace, the environment and human services.

Inspiring stories of leadership and accomplishment . . .


continued from page1

Consumers Fight Back - And Win! PG & E ’ s B a c k w a rd s B a c k bi l l in g

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challenging PG&E’s right to back bill hen Pamela called TURN her beyond three months for what was in October she was angry clearly a company error. PG&E would and frustrated. She had not admit to a billing error and continbeen disputing a PG&E bill for several ued to demand payment. months to no avail. PG&E claimed that With TURN’s help, she had not paid her March or April gas bills. Eventually PG&E Pamela was able to resolve her billing complaint Pamela insisted that she backed down, with PG&E. had paid, and had her and stopped Armed with the facts, check numbers, amounts paid and the proof that trying to collect which are that PG&E’s tariffs only allow the comPG&E had cashed her checks to substantiate for their mistake. pany to back-bill for up to three months in cases of her claim. utility error, Pamela stood up to PG&E. Pamela spoke to a customer serEventually PG&E backed down, and vice representative, a supervisor and stopped trying to collect for their misthree different people in the Executake. Receiving accurate bills issued at tive office. Although they verbally regular intervals is a basic consumer agreed that she had indeed paid right and it is PG&E’s responsibility the amounts listed on the April and to establish and maintain accurate March bills, she continued to receive billing systems. letters from PG&E demanding payment for those months. In addition, she had received three 15 day disReaders of turning connection notices and two requests points may rememto set up a payment plan — this after ber that this is not she filed a California Public Utilities the first time PG&E Complaint through TURNs website! has failed to follow proper back Because Pamela had kept all of her billing procedures. In 2005, TURN PG&E bills, she was able to review won refunds for customers who them carefully. She figured out that had been unfairly back-billed in she had been under-billed for her gas flagrant violation of PG&E’s tariffs. usage in April and March. Instead of Thanks to a recent TURN victory, informing Pamela that a billing error business customers will now enhad taken place, PG&E kept sending joy protections similar to residenher bills. tial customers — see page one. When Pamela realized what PG&E was trying to do, she fought back,

staff bio

TURN Urges Customers Not to Sign Up for PG&E’s ClimateSmart

Kori Chen

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ori Chen joined TURN in March 2010 as a Community Organizer. He is responsible for coordinating strategies to involve consumers in TURN’s many organizing campaigns, as well as providing both assistance and advice to consumers who want to understand their bills, challenge unjust utility company practices and get easy-to-understand information about valuable, money-saving programs. Prior to joining TURN, Kori worked as a Community Organizer for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. His work focused on empowering community members to take action to transform the criminal justice system, and coordinated a successful campaign that forced Sumter County, Georgia to stop using predatory, for-profit probation companies. He is a graduate of the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program (MAAP) and holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

green matters

N o B enefits to E nvironment or C ustomers

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G&E’s ClimateSmart is a raterollment levels to change dramatically. payer funded marketing proEvery dollar customers pay for greengram that endeavors to convince house gas reductions under this procustomers to pay a premium on their gram means another dollar in profits electric bill in order to purchase greenfor PG&E.” house gas reductions. Enrollment has TURN recommends that customers been more than 80% below establishseeking to make a difference through ed goals, with marketing choices that reduce their costs in 2009 of approClimateSmart is climate footprint take ximately $500 per new specific energy reduca bad deal for customer subscription. tion actions or purchase consumers and greenhouse gas reducSince July of 2008, the program has lost over the environment. tion credits elsewhere. 3,400 customers. “Because PG&E will have Despite the tepid consumer response to pay for the reductions that haven’t to the program, the California Public been purchased by ClimateSmart cusUtilities Commission (CPUC) recently tomers, ultimately there will be greater authorized customer funding of anothbenefits to the environment if customers er $5.6 million over TURN’s objections. buy offsets elsewhere,” Freedman said. TURN said that further spending on Freedman noted that PG&E failed ClimateSmart is not only a bad deal for to identify any significant changes to consumers, it’s a bad deal for the envitheir marketing strategies other than ronment as well. the greater use of social networking TURN staff attorney Matt Freedman sites like Facebook. Previous postings said that due to protections won by on the ClimateSmart Facebook page TURN, “shareholders are responsible defended PG&E’s response to the San for meeting minimum ClimateSmart Bruno explosion rather than promotgreenhouse gas reduction goals of 1.36 ing greenhouse gas reductions. After million metric tons even if the program TURN pointed out the improper use fails to meet goals through customer of the ClimateSmart Facebook page in subscriptions. At this point,” Freedman comments to the CPUC, PG&E deleted said, “the only benefits to giving PG&E the postings and the CPUC ordered another $5.6 million are the marketing PG&E not to use ClimateSmart marketbenefits to PG&E. No one expects ening for image rehabilitation.

Easy ways to cut back on your carbon emissions include:

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Kill energy vampires — use power strips to turn off electronic devices when not in use.

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Wash clothes and dishes in cold water instead of warm or hot.

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Dry your clothes outside instead of in a clothes dryer.

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Insulate your water heater.

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Plant shade trees.

small businesses will have new limits.” Although the Commission did not go as far as TURN had hoped in forbidding deposits to re-establish service and late payment deposits, we did win better restrictions on the size of the deposit, which will now be limited to two times the average monthly bill. In addition, deposits cannot be charged when service is being re-established after failure to pay back charges. Small business customers are customers that either: n use less than 40,000 kilowatt-hours per year or use less than 20 kilowatts at a time (known as the energy demand) or use fewer than 10,000 therms of gas per year; or n qualify as a microbusiness under Gov C 14837.2. “Microbusiness” is defined as a small business which, together with affiliates, has average annual gross receipts of $2,500,000 or less over the previous three years, or is a manufacturer ... with 25 or fewer employees. Suetake said that “in these difficult economic times, it is good to know small business can no longer be subject to the huge, unfair utility bills the previous rules allowed. PG&E, SoCal Edison, SDG&E and SoCal Gas have 60 days to implement the new, improved rules.”

Plug In! T o s u p p o rt T U R N

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ember support allows TURN to advocate for affordable and dependable utility services, and to stand up for consumers across the state as an independent and unbiased voice. TURN’s effectiveness is largely due to the fact that we are not beholden to any corporate or government funding sources. In fact, thanks to the continued support of members like you, TURN is the only independent statewide utility consumer advocacy organization in California.


nonprofit organization u.s. postage paid san francisco, ca permit no. 1083

268 Bush Street #3933 San Francisco, CA 94104 tel: 415-929-8876 fax: 415-929-1132 w w w. t u r n . o r g

sta f f tip K e e p Wa rm W it h W ind ow I n s u l ati o n B y M a rc e l H a w i g e r T U RN E n e rg y A t t o r n e y

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or many consumers high winter natural gas bills for heating are worse than summer electric bills, especially those who live on the coast or in the mountains. Historically we in California have not worried so much about heating bills due to our relatively mild climate and lower heating bills. But heating costs (due to natural gas prices) have increased in the past ten years. There are a few things we can learn from residents on the other side of the country, since consumers in the Northeast states have much colder winters and higher heating bills. One of the common things people on the East Coast do to reduce heating costs

g i v in g

is to cover windows with ‘shrink wrap’ plastic. You can buy this product at many hardware stores for about $5 per large window. The plastic sticks to your window frame, and when you heat it with a hair dryer it shrinks so it is almost invisible and doesn’t block your windows. The downside is that you cannot open the window until you remove the plastic in the spring. But if you have any old windows that you never open, consider applying the plastic to reduce your gas heating bill.

Success Make 2011 another g r e at y e a r f o r T U R N With your support, TURN has had enormous success in the past year. We’ve won new consumer protections for phone and energy customers, defeated PG&E’s outrageous Prop 16 and saved California consumers billions of dollars. Please use the attached envelope to send an additional donation, so that we can continue to protect customers and lower utility bills in 2011. We can’t do it without you! You can also donate online at www.turn.org

TURN  

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