Colbeck: Law must be changed to increase penalties for utility violations

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 More money must go towards affected customers and enforcement of consumer protections

LANSING, Mich. — In the wake of a massive investigation into DTE by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, will be introducing legislation to provide needed updates on how much a utility can be fined, as well as to provide guarantees that affected customers receive compensation for accidental or illegal electric shut-offs.

“The maximum that utilities can be fined under some of our laws has remained unchanged for nearly 100 years and is no longer a real deterrent for the people managing our public utilities,” said Sen. Colbeck. “Many fines and penalties in general only flow back to the MPSC and not to affected customers. Fine money must to go towards specific consumer protection purposes and not just the MPSC as a whole, and affected customers need to receive compensation as well. Whether it is the cost of burst pipes in the winter or spoiled food in the summer, it is outrageous how many people are inappropriately getting their power turned off, and affected customers deserve far more than just an ‘oops, we’re sorry’ from our utilities.”

During a related legislative hearing regarding the shut-offs, testimony offered on behalf of DTE acknowledged that they have not yet paid any financial penalty, saying: “the biggest penalty that we pay is detriment to our customer [satisfaction].” Sen. Colbeck said because most residential customers are stuck in a monopoly market for utility service, it is clear that additional penalties are needed.

Preliminary MPSC findings, released Feb. 21, highlighted how DTE has been violating several consumer protections rules, sometimes resulting in people having their power cut for inappropriate reasons. While the company has blamed many of the problems on a new computer system, Sen. Colbeck said the most recent problems fit into a longstanding pattern of poor customer service that arises when people don’t have the options to show dissatisfaction by voting with their dollars.

“We’re dealing with residential abuses against captive customers here,” said Sen. Colbeck. “Many of these people were getting shut off in error during some of the coldest months we’ve seen in a decade, and it frequently took much too long for power to be restored. We need to change the law to create real deterrents and to compensate the real victims of these utility errors. Losing power can be life threatening, and these illegal shut-offs should not be lightly dismissed in any way, shape, or form.”

Case U-20084 investigating DTE will begin in earnest this fall.

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