consultants are sandburs

Monday, October 14, 2013

RAMSEY - FRANCHISE FEES - What might immediate consequences be, if a franchise fee goes unpaid, say, perhaps two months straight? What are the applicable utilty policies and procedures which may apply?

Details of Connexus and Center Point billing and collection remedies may need research, but for illustrative purposes, another utility's online operational book can be used to suggest a range of thought.

At this link, there is posted a 57 page document, which at p.30 and following, has interesting food for thought. P.30 has an index stating in part:

Greater Minnesota Gas, Inc.
St. Peter, Minnesota 56082
Gas Rate Book
Date Filed: October 25, 2010 Effective Date: November 1, 2010
By: Michael L. Jablonske
Docket No. G022/GR09-062 Order Date: October 15, 2010

General Rules and Regulations Section VI
Table of Contents 3 rd Revised Sheet No. 1
Section Item Sheet No.
Section 1 General Service Rules
1.1 Application for Service VI-2
1.2 Service Charges VI-2
1.3 Access to Customer’s Premises VI-3
1.4 Continuity of Service VI-3
1.5 Deposits and Guarantees VI-3
1.6 Service Calls VI-4
Section 2 Metering and Billing
2.1 Metering and Testing VI-5
2.2 Monthly Billing VI-5
2.3 Budget Payment Plan VI-5
2.4 Payment Agreements VI-5
2.5 Late Payment Fee VI-6
2.6 Bill Due Date VI-6
2.7 Estimated Bills VI-6
2.8 Billing Adjustments VI-6
2.9 Returned Check Fee VI-7

That seems to be fairly standard billing stuff a utility might consider. First note, there is no provision for a hearing or other possible dispute resolution, if a billing may be disliked or in error. Suck it in, bucko, seems the message; rather than "Your right to due process is near and dear."

Next page, this

B. Service Reconnection Charge
The Company will charge $75 for reconnecting service which has been disconnected for valid cause to include but not be limited by nonpayment, fraudulent or unauthorized use of service, tampering with Company’s meter or connection, mis-use or waste of service by customer or a dangerous condition exists with respect to the presence, delivery or usage of natural gas on customer premises.

The "valid cause" language presents a problem, valid in whose mind, and how might validity be contested at modest cost to a ratepayer feeling wronged? No policy? Or again, suck it in, bucko, which might arguably do in a regulated contract of adhesion private party thing, but then when a governmental imposition is tacked on, things should change - or not?

At any rate, declining as a matter of conscience to pay a franchise fee will, for a reconnection, sting you seventy five bucks with these folks, likely more with Connexus not having to undergo PUC scrutiny. Civil disobedience has its costs, one guesses. A subsequent page, this

2.5 Late Payment Fee
The bill balance is due on the date due printed on the bill. A late payment charge of 1.5% or $1.00, whichever is reater, will be added to the unpaid balance of the bill if not paid by the due date. Customers under the Budget Payment Plan or payment arrangement will be assessed the late payment charge on the lesser of the outstanding scheduled payments or the outstanding account balance. If any unpaid balance is $10.00 or less, the late payment charge will not be applied. All payments received will be credited against the oldest outstanding total account alance before application of the late payment charge.

2.6 Bill Date Due
Bills are due and payable upon presentation. For purposes of applying the late payment fee, the date due shown on the customer’s bill shall be not more than five days before the next scheduled billing date.

Well, a private party with contract of adhesion powers has authority to determine when you have to pay taxes, whereas in legitimate taxing via levy and taxing of real property, there is an entirely different due process set of rules with it appearing that due process is more a concern, or should be, when governments tax. But not so, if the tax is indirect and routed through private tax collectors? As with a sales tax, this being, in truth as it operates a municipal sales tax on energy, after all is said and done.

Legitimate, regular real property taxation has its own late fee and collection procedures, yet here it is set by regulation for PUC regulated utilities, and by hook or crook for cooperatives having contract of adhesion powers without PUC scrutiny as with the other brand. Bless Connexus for its size and massive geographical reach, and its avoidance of regulation, but should our City not weigh such considerations if being deliberate and thourough?

That "let the utility do it" thinking is not due process, in my understanding of the term.

One may argue there is comfort in the following, although it may be cold comfort -

2.8 Billing Adjustments
In the event of a meter or billing error, as defined by Minnesota Rules, the Company shall recalculate the bills for service during the period of the error, up to a maximum of one year from the date of discovery if the error results in under-charges. The Company shall recalculate bills for errors resulting in over-charges up to a maximum of three years from the date of discovery. Adjustments of bills will be made in accordance with the rules prescribed by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. If an existing customer was overcharged more than $1.00 or a person no longer a customer was overcharged more than $2.00 as a result of the error, the recalculated amount, plus interest, will be refunded or, where applicable, a credit on a bill shall be made. If a customer has been overcharged as a result of the error, the recalculated amount will be refunded or, where applicable, a credit on a bill shall be made. If a customer has been undercharged as a result of the error, the Company may bill the customer if the amount due exceeds $10.00. The first billing of the recalculated amount due will be separately billed on a form different from the normal bill form and include a complete explanation of the billing.

The opening language, does any reader - especially one who may be a Ramsey city official, know what "Minnesota Rules" have to say about an error in a franchise fee pass through, vs. an error in a billing for energy supplied?

Zippo would be my guess, and then much of "Minnesota Rules" applicable to utilities is PUC stuff, so what "Billing Adjustments" procedure exists for the cooperative, Connexus, and how might the policy and procedure change from day to day? And what safeguards for the public exist that way? Due process, again, a Constitutional Bill or Rights things binding on the states and their political subdivisions. For good cause, the Fifth Amendment's "no taking of private property without due process of law" language has been a part of fundamental nationwide law from the Constitution's passage to the present as a fit constraint upon arbitrary government action. Imposing a tax, especially an indirect regressive one, is a taking; so where in all this is our rightfully due "due process planning" in advance of any potential implementation?

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