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Gas Pains

Consumers left out in the cold this winter

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I still don't trust the gas company. Is the conspiracy afoot here that most people just bend over and pay the piper?

I hate the freakin' gas company. I don't mean to single them out: I hate all public utilities -- and anyone else who has control over our lives because we have little choice but to use them, and because when they screw us there's often no appeal.

I freaked out when my gas bill was $379. My previous bill had been $211. I have about 800 square feet in my cracker-box Pittsburgh apartment. My friend has a 5,000-square-foot home and his last gas bill was about $450. My gas bill should not be anywhere in his ballpark.

It's always a dangerous undertaking to begin navigating utility bureaucracies. It starts with the 45-minute phone-wait to talk to a person while Kenny G. music blares from my speakerphone. It's all a very clever strategy designed to make me want to shoot myself, and it nearly worked.

When someone finally answered the phone, it was, as always, a cranky front-line bureaucrat, who gets yelled at all day by customers, and ain't gonna take no shit off nobody. I gave her some anyway. She explained that my December bill was an estimate, but when they read the meter in January the estimate was low. In Dubya parlance, they misunderestimated in December.

Right away I was dumbstruck that I'm getting billed on an "estimate." Whose estimate? Why can't they send someone out every month? If they don't have enough people, how do they qualify to be the gas company? I asked the cranky gas bureaucrat how much had been used in December as opposed to January. In other words, what was the level of the misunderestimation? She gave me a Rumsfeldian reply: It is unknowable. All she knows is, the meter was much higher than the estimate would lead one to believe it would be.

She asked if I wanted to start reading the meter every other month, rather than relying on their estimate. Hey, gas company: I have work to do! Why am I doing your work for you? Then I discovered that, for several months last year, the gas company refused to come out here because the meters are located in a "hazardous" location. It's true that you have to navigate some weird ground with shaky stairs to get there, but they were asking me to go down and read it, weren't they?

The cranky chick said she'd have a supervisor call me, but implied the answer would be the same. I read the meter and finally received a call from the supervisor, who explained to me that -- hold onto your genitals -- I was right and they were wrong! They had charged me for 21.3 units of gas when I had only used 9.5. My adjusted bill would be approximately $177 instead of $379.

How is such a monumental screw-up possible? "They are human," explained the supervisor. Well, that's swell, because I assumed blind goats must be reading the meters.

So while I initially scoffed at doing their work for them, it sounds safer to not only read it every other month personally, but to check their work: Apparently, they read the meters and punch the numbers into a portable computer or calculator which the gas company downloads. So perhaps sometimes they get the shakes from a night of heavy drinking, and prove unable to coordinate their computer entries with reality.

On my KDKA radio show, I opened the phone lines to see if anyone else suffered from alarming gas-bill increases. The switchboard lit up like the proverbial holiday tree. (I didn't say "Christmas" just to piss off you right-wingers). There were several complaints of bills rising more than 100 percent.

So I still don't trust the gas company. Why do we consumers have to double-check everybody else's work? Is the conspiracy afoot here that most people just bend over and pay the piper -- so for all the complaints they receive, they still make out like bandits because most don't challenge the bill?

Just like the oil companies, the gas companies will never admit to price gouging. So start reading your own meter, or maybe hire a blind goat who's good at estimates.

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