by Jim Turner
By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, August 25, 2014
Duke Energy Florida will have to explain to state regulators an ongoing change in its billing process that two lawmakers say is spiking costs.
Public Service Commission Chairman Art Graham on Monday asked Duke Energy Florida President Alex Glenn to appear at a Sept. 4 meeting to address concerns raised by state Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, about billing-cycle adjustments and related increased customer payments.
Glenn will be at the meeting, a company spokesman said.
The billing change, first reported by the Tampa Bay Times, is part of an ongoing process started in May 2013 to streamline the company's routes for meter-reading throughout central and northern Florida.
The change by Duke --- allowed by a PSC rule while the utility changes meter-reading routes --- is being implemented in two steps for most of the utility's 1.7 million customers.
The first step can lead to extensions of up to 12 days of the monthly billing cycle for some customers. The second permanently resets the monthly billing cycle to start at the end of the elongated month.
The lawmakers have raised concerns about the one-time cost hike through the extended billing cycles, now coming to customers in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
"Although it might be legal for them to squeeze the additional money from customers in this manner, it certainly isn't moral," Latvala wrote to Graham last week.
Duke customers are charged $11.34 for every 100 kilowatt hours of use up to 1,000 kilowatt hours. The rate jumps to $13.70 for each 100 kilowatt hours after the 1,000 kilowatt mark.
Brandes implored Graham to have the PSC provide "immediate relief" for financially impacted Duke customers.
"Regulated utilities cannot be allowed to arbitrarily increase rates outside of the process established by law," Brandes wrote to the PSC chairman.
Duke spokesman Sterling Ivey said Monday the company is trying to determine how many customers were moved into a higher rate during a lengthened billing cycle. Duke is also studying how it may assist those who have been impacted by the billing change, he said.
"We've heard from customers and lawmakers, we understand the concerns, we're reviewing what options we may have to assist these customers," Ivey said.
Ivey said rebates could be one method.
About 1 million customers in Central Florida have already gone through the change as the new meter-reader routes were being set. It is estimated that about a quarter of that number has received a bill covering 33 or more days, Ivey said.
Customers south of Tallahassee in the Big Bend region should expect to see changes to their billing cycle in October.
Ivey said the new routing already has shown savings for the company, as people checking the meters drove about 300,000 fewer miles in the past year from prior years. The route changes could also result in a reduction in staffing, he said.