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Thursday, February 4,2010

Xcel doesn't always tell customers when they're being cut loose

By Jefferson Dodge

Lindstrom lives at 1545 Grove St., in a house that is divided into two rental units. The address of the other unit is 1609 16th St. There are separate Xcel meters for gas and electricity for each unit. In 2008, about six months after Lindstrom moved into her half of the house, she asked Xcel to start billing her for the entire house’s utilities, so that she and her neighbors, Bruce Kenyon and Nicole Ellingson, could divide the costs more easily and equitably after a local company stopped managing the property. She says Xcel failed to do that, and just sent her bills for her half of the house. Lindstrom kept paying them, thinking she and her neighbors were paying utilities for the entire property. After all, the heat, lights and stove all worked fine.

But the electric heat for the entire property is provided through her neighbor’s side of the house, and while Xcel records showed that no one was paying for the electricity on that meter, the company left the power on.

And the overdue amount continued to grow, unbeknownst to Lindstrom until that cold night when Xcel decided that, after a year and a half with no payments, it was high time to kill the electricity.

* * *

Denver-based Xcel spokesperson Mark Stutz told Boulder Weekly that it’s not in the company’s best financial interests to shut off a customer’s service. “The last thing we want to do is turn someone’s power off,” he says. “But people have to take some responsibility for it, especially if they have been ignoring notifications.”

Stutz, before escalating the interview to an Xcel executive in Minnesota, also claimed initially that Lindstrom had been given proper notice, although he declined to reveal the timing of that notice, citing the company’s rules against revealing private customer information.

He also said last week that Xcel does not shut off power during cold weather.

* * *

The Minnesota executive, Pat Boland, who is Xcel’s manager for credit policy and compliance, told Boulder Weekly that Xcel has a policy of not turning off power during times when a home is left vacant, or is between residents, because it would require so much manpower to make those periodic onsite visits that it would drive up costs significantly, and those costs would have to be passed on to the customers.

He says that in most cases, properties are only left vacant a short time between owners or renters, and it is much less expensive to simply keep the power flowing than to send a technician to turn gas or electricity off — and then back on — between occupants.

Boland says Xcel constantly grapples with the challenge of tracking down who should be billed for service when there is transfer of property or rental turnover, and the current economic downturn and spike in foreclosures has only exacerbated the problem of late.

He acknowledges that it is much cheaper for Xcel to give free interim power to small residences like Lindstrom’s than it is to large commercial or office buildings, so problems with the latter tend to pop up on Xcel’s radar sooner.

In other words, it’s much more likely that a duplex unit like Lindstrom’s would slip through the cracks and receive months of free electricity or gas than a skyscraper in Denver would. As Boland says, the customers not using very much power “may not hold as high a priority as others. … It may be several months before it catches up with them.”

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