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The Great Electric Meter Mystery, or, How Not to Handle a Funny-Looking Bill from Commonwealth Edison



From the outside, the building at 2306 N. Lincoln looks innocent and ordinary, a storefront and some apartments in need of nothing more than a few coats of paint.

Inside, well, that's a different story. Something fishy is going on there, residents past and present say. The building mysteriously devours huge quantities of electricity, leaving residents with inexplicably high electric bills.

"I call it the black hole--it just sucks up electricity," says Tim McPike, a renter in the five-unit building for the last several years. "I live here by myself, and yet I have friends who are married and live in a three-story house whose bills are lower than mine."

"I can't believe the bills Commonwealth Edison says I generated there," says Elizabeth Franken, who was all but driven from the building by soaring costs. "I say to myself: 'How did this happen? How can this be possible?' There are no answers."

Of all the residents there when she was, Franken--a graduate student in literature at the University of Illinois--and her husband, Steve Munro, were hardest hit by the electric company. When they moved there in September 1986, their landlord estimated that the gas-heated, one-bedroom unit would generate about $450 a year in utility bills. "And that was all utility bills!" Franken exclaims. "That includes gas and electricity."

But when they left, exactly two years later, Commonwealth Edison said they had run up a bill of $2,813.52 (late-payment penalties included). That's an average of $1,406 a year, or $117 a month. True, Franken and Munro mishandled the matter. They treated the bills the way many people do their parking tickets--for the most part, they just ignored them. But all told, they are being charged some $2,000 more than they expected to pay.

"Our records show that [Franken's] unit used the power, so she has to pay the bill," says John Hogan, Edison's chief spokesman. "All we have to go on is her word that she didn't use the electricity; on the other side, we have the meter reading that says the electricity was used on those premises. Are we surprised? We're surprised to the extent that the successive account there is using one-third the electricity. We have no way of knowing how or why so much electricity was generated there by [Franken], we just know that it was."

Outsiders doubt Edison's conclusions.

"Under normal circumstances, that bill for that unit is virtually impossible," says Howard Learner, a consumer lawyer and member of the Citizens Utility Board. "If, as [Franken] says, it's a one-bedroom, gas-heated, with minimal TV use, no stereo, no computer, and normal appliance use, I would be surprised if their annual bill was in excess of $400. Something goofy is definitely going on there."

The goofiness began soon after Franken and Munro moved in. "We should have known something was funny because we didn't get a bill for three months," says Franken. "I don't know why. We didn't do anything. We figured they would catch up with us sooner or later."

In January 1987 their first notice came. "Your current billing normally due for payment by February 6, 1987 is delayed," it read. "A bill will be issued after another meter reading is made."

The next notice arrived on February 18. "They said we owed $324.81 for 135 days," says Franken. "That's about $72 a month. We thought that was high. My husband called the electric company, and they said, 'That's what the meter said, that's what it's going to be.' We thought it was a bogus bill, and we weren't going to pay it."

The March bill was about $67, raising their total debt to $391--an average monthly cost of $71. Franken and her husband still refused to pay. April's bill included a revision. They owed only $279.25, according to that bill, or $46 a month.

"It was bizarre," says Franken. "The bills went up and down. The only explanation I can think of is that sometime in March, the electric company sent in a man to read the meter. Before that, they'd been unable to read the meter and had based our bill on estimates."

Commonwealth Edison did not bill them in May. "Your current billing normally due for payment by June 8, 1987 is delayed," the notice read. In an admittedly confused stab at resolving the senseless situation, Franken sent Commonwealth Edison a $75 check.

"We decided that was the right step to solving the problem," says Franken. "In retrospect I see that it was foolish to just send them a check. But my check made about as much sense as the bills they were sending me."

By then it was mid-June 1987. They'd been living in the building for nine months. That was when Edison struck.

"In June we got a bill that said we owed $505.38," says Franken. Adding their $75 check, that meant they'd run up about $580 in electrical bills, or $61 a month. It was higher than Franken expected, certainly more than she and her husband planned to pay.

"We had a little apartment with gas heat," says Franken. "We had an electric dishwasher, electric lights, refrigerator, an electric mixer, a blender--no microwave, no computer, no stereo, one lousy air conditioner, and a television we hardly watched. Tell me: how could we have generated so much electricity?"

In desperation they called on their neighbors, and they learned that they were not alone.

"I understand what Beth was going through; we had big problems with Edison, too," says neighbor Laura Chamberlain. "We were being charged over $100 a month for our one-bedroom apartment, and that wasn't right. We finally got Edison to straighten it out, but let me tell you, that was one of the hardest, most time-consuming things I've done in my life. I must have called Edison every day for a month. I talked to ten different people. They all told me the same thing: 'This is what you have to pay.'"

"My monthly bills run from $50 to $100," adds McPike, who rents a one-bedroom unit. "The utility company's attitude is: 'Shut up and pay the bill.' It's ridiculous. I should raise a fuss; I guess I'm just too lazy."

Franken and her husband tried to come up with theories to explain the high bills. Perhaps it was faulty wiring, or maybe it had to do with the fact that their landlord--Joseph del Guidice--failed for months to let Edison read the building's meters.

"It's the weirdest thing, but Joe wouldn't let the meter readers into the basement to read the meters," says Franken. "The basement door is locked, and only Joe has the key. Edison was always demanding to be let in."

"Months would go by, and Joe wouldn't let Edison's meter readers in," says Chamberlain. "One time they shut off our electricity until Joe let them in. That was outrageous. I thought it was illegal. How could they blame us because Joe wouldn't let them in? I used to complain all the time. Once I went to Joe's house while he was having a party in his backyard. I said: 'Joe, let those meter readers in!'"

Del Guidice says his failure to let in the meter readers was an oversight.

"My God, that Franken girl is just the tip of the iceberg with Edison," says del Guidice. "You think she's got problems. I've got a vacant storefront on the first floor of that building. They [Edison] hit me for $12,000 for that store, and it's been empty for ten years. That's how this whole thing started. In 1983, we had no service in that store, and I got a bill for about $1,700. I thought it was $17. Two months later, this gestapo guy from Edison--he looked like a goddamn Nazi--comes in and says: 'Pay your fucking bill!' I told him to fuck off, the bastards. They [Edison] base this crap on estimates--they don't know what the hell they're doing."

Edison officials defend the accuracy of their estimates.

"We estimate a bill based on past usage," says Hogan. "The readings may not have taken place every month, but estimates don't take place forever. Eventually we insist on getting in to read the meter."

The only other explanation is what Edison calls "foreign overload." That is, other units may be tapped into Franken's meter. "We hear complaints like that all the time," says Pat Clark, spokesperson for the Citizens Utility Board. "It's illegal, and whoever is doing it can be punished. It's hard to prove, but [consumers] think it happens all the time."

Franken suspected that foreign overload was her problem, but she has no proof. Meanwhile months passed. New, even higher bills arrived: $183.31 for June, $207.48 for July, $137.25 for August. Franken and Munro did not pay, nor did they contest any of them. In September 1988, they moved to a new apartment.

"I can't defend our actions; I'm ashamed of them--they were wrong," says Franken. "We should have paid; we should have complained. We should have done something different than what we did. We were in a nightmare situation, and we figured that Edison would come to its senses and the whole thing would be taken care of."

This past April, Edison caught up to Franken and Munro.

"We got a notice saying that if we didn't settle our account and pay about $2,700, our electricity would be shut off," says Franken. "This is embarrassing, but the notice was unopened. I think Steve thought I would open it, and I thought Steve would open it. A few days later they shut the electricity off. It was either April 3 or 10--I can't remember which. I know we were reading Sister Carrie."

Plunged into darkness, Franken called Edison immediately. She talked to four different employees, all of whom told her to pay her bill. She complained to an official with the Illinois Commerce Commission, who told her an investigation of her complaint was forthcoming. She called a public-aid lawyer, who said he couldn't take her case.

"I finally capitulated; I had no choice," says Franken. "I gave Edison a check for $1,200. And they turned my electricity back on."

"There is a procedure for this kind of complaint," says consumer-rights lawyer Learner. "First, she reports her problem to Com Ed. If after an investigation Com Ed says, 'You still owe us the money,' she can file an informal complaint with the ICC. If that doesn't satisfy her, she can file a formal complaint before the ICC, and appeal that decision all the way to the state supreme court. While her case is being heard, she's not required to pay the contested portion of her bill."

It is advice Franken wishes she had had a year ago.

"Our biggest mistake was doing nothing," says Franken. "Believe me, if I ever get into a situation like this again, I'll bark like a dog to get it cleared up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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