She thought one call would fix her power bill. A year later, she’s still not satisfied

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Rashah McChesney, Gulf States Newsroom

When Melissa Vegas got a text alert in the Summer of last year from Entergy New Orleans that said she owed $563, she figured it was just a clerical error.

Sure, the French Colonial home she lives in off New Orleans’ Magazine Street looks huge, but it’s a quadplex — split into four units. A power bill north of $500 seemed outlandish for her modest, one-bedroom apartment.

“I’m like ‘Oh, there’s a mistake,’” Vegas said. “‘Let me call and figure out what’s going on. There’s no reason I should owe $563.’”

But what she thought would be a 15-minute phone call instead stretched into a nearly year-long fight with Entergy.

Vegas’ issue is a scenario that many utility consumers have been faced with before — what do you do if your power bill skyrockets to an unfathomable amount?

Power bill disputes are inherently imbalanced in the utility company’s favor. They own the equipment and hold the data and industry expertise. That can leave customers contesting bills, like Vegas, feeling gaslit when they’re told everything is fine.

“It’s really difficult for the average person to challenge or dispute whatever the company is telling them,” said Jesse George, New Orleans policy director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy.

How to challenge a bill can vary state-to-state and across cities, but it is possible. Here are some steps that customers can take.

RELATED: A water leak led to a $20K bill for an Alabama couple. A smart meter could have saved them

Contact the company

Melissa Vegas stands outside the quadplex one-bedroom apartment she rents in New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 30, 2023.
Melissa Vegas stands outside the quadplex one-bedroom apartment she rents in New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 30, 2023. Vegas has been disputing her Entergy gas bill over the past year. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

Vegas’ problem first began when Entergy gave her a call out of the blue.

She doesn’t remember the details, but around April 2022 the utility said it had been estimating her bill instead of getting an accurate reading. Vegas’s landlord kept the front gate to her quadplex locked, which prevented utility workers from viewing her meter for actual usage. Because of this, the company said it underestimated how much she used, and Vegas should expect one big bill to make up for it.

Vegas believed the decision was fair and received a bill for about $350 soon after. But then, she got another big bill the following month — this time for $400. Then, the $563 bill came. That’s when she gave the company a call.

That’s the best, first step a customer can take, according to a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center. In New Orleans, residents must try and fix their problems with Entergy before regulators will agree to take a look at a claim. A phone call could help the company uncover a technical glitch that has a quick resolution or lead to the discovery of a more serious issue — like a gas leak.

But a fast solution was not the case for Vegas. Instead, she described calling Entergy like spinning a wheel. Each time, she’d get a different customer rep on the line with a different reaction, ranging from helpful to dismissive.

Vegas described one representative who apologized, said something was clearly wrong with her account and that her bill would be adjusted. Another said she didn’t know what Vegas was talking about or where she was getting her numbers from.

“Every single time it’s something different,” Vegas said. “When I call and I follow up, this narrative changes.”

A lot of the confusion comes down to Vegas’ Entergy account — digging through all the charges and reversals is like spreadsheet whiplash. In just one July day last year, Vegas received four different charges, listed as “monthly,” totaling more than $1,400. Her account then shows four different credits given the same day.

“I have no idea what’s going on here,” Vegas said. “It looks like I own four properties if you were to look at my account.”

The Gulf States Newsroom spoke with Entergy multiple times to understand the cause of the multiple charges and credits to Vegas’ account. A spokesperson for the company repeatedly refused to get into the specifics of her case, citing customer confidentiality.

But in an emailed statement, Entergy said customers will sometimes see multiple credits and charges when the company adjusts old bills. Generally when that happens, according to the spokesperson, the company will send an explanation letter along with that month’s bill to clarify the changes. But, Vegas shared a letter attached to one bill and it’s short on details. There’s no written explanation for what was changed or why.

Vegas exported her bill history and shared it with the Gulf States Newsroom for analysis, along with digital copies of some bills, though it could not verify the charges independently with Entergy.

Complaints about Entergy bills have followed the company for years, including a lack of transparency over bills, getting stuck in customer service bureaucracy and sudden price spikes.

Summing up her monthly charges makes it easy to follow what Vegas’ was actually charged for each cycle, but Vegas said she can no longer download most of her old bills from Entergy’s website, leaving her without a quick way to check what all these different charges were for.

Entergy New Orleans says customers can access two years of billing history online and then must contact the company to get anything older.

While Vegas tried to solve the problem with Entergy, she continued getting high bills, ranging from $300 to more than $400 each month. These expenses forced Vegas to cut back her spending just about anywhere she could, including going to work in shoes with the seams coming off.

Her persistence eventually got results. According to Vegas, Entergy sent a technician to her place to check out her meter, which eventually led to the company installing a new meter that could be read wireless so her bills would no longer need to be estimated. She also got thousands of dollars credited back to her account and her bills became cheaper. Counting the refunds, her average monthly bill by May was about $260.

But Vegas believes that’s still suspiciously high when compared to her neighbors’ bills, particularly when looking at the gas portion. Entergy told her not to compare charges with other renters — different lifestyles and housing can explain big differences.

But again, Vegas lives in a quadplex and said her neighbors have nearly identical units. Despite this, they were charged a fraction of the amount she owed for gas. Vegas said her landlord checked out the apartment and found no problem with the appliances nor any sign of a gas leak.

What really frustrates Vegas, though, was how this process has dragged on when compared to Entergy’s speed when the company said it undercharged her.

“They found that on their own and they made sure that I was charged that,” Vegas said. “But over 15 phone calls, we just can’t figure out the problem of why I’m using this much gas.”

Reach out to the regulators

Melissa Vegas shares an apartment building split into four units off Magazine Street in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Melissa Vegas shares an apartment building split into four units off Magazine Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. Vegas said her neighbors have nearly identical units to her, but were charged a fraction of the amount she owed for gas. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

When talks with a utility stall out, customers can turn to government officials required to hold them accountable.

In Louisiana, that’s the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which has a page for submitting complaints. Mississippi and Alabama have their own commissions to help. The process works a bit differently in New Orleans, though, where the city council regulates Entergy.

The city has a customer bill of rights, including the right to challenge the utility. If an attempt to solve the problem with Entergy doesn’t satisfy the customer, they can then send a formal complaint form to the Council Utilities Regulatory Office.

Another option is going to your state’s utility consumer advocate. They function almost like public defenders. Usually, that means disputing how much of a rate increase utilities want regulators to approve. At other times, it’s helping customers directly with bill disputes.

“For the average consumer to spend time parsing all the details of their utility bill… that’s asking a lot,” said Jenifer Bosco, senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “Having someone who can really be a voice for consumers and also educate consumers about what their rights are — I think that’s really important.”

Louisiana, however, is one of just eight states that doesn’t have an official consumer advocate. Neither does Mississippi. Alabama’s consumer advocate is based in the Office of the Attorney General.

But some states, like Louisiana, have unofficial consumer advocates. There, it’s the nonprofit Alliance for Affordable Energy — which said it gets about one call per week from customers that need help contesting Entergy bills. But the group said it’s an unfair matchup for them to go up against a huge utility without the backing of state resources.

“We’re facing a Fortune 500 company that has all the resources and personnel that goes along with that,” George said. “We’re just a seven-or-eight-person organization.”

George recommends New Orleans residents contact their local council member — while including the Alliance for Affordable Energy — telling them about the billing troubles. That usually gets the council's attention and gets bills fixed.

Get loud

Entergy replaced the gas meter outside of Melissa Vegas’ quadplex apartment after workers could not read the meter due to a locked gate.
Entergy replaced the gas meter outside of Melissa Vegas’ quadplex apartment after workers could not read the meter due to a locked gate. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

Here’s a bonus step — contact the media.

After the Gulf States Newsroom reached out to Entergy for comment on Vegas’ bills, the company assigned a customer services specialist to her case. He told her the most recent high bills could be a problem with her new gas meter. In June, her account was credited hundreds of more dollars — this time over 31 separate charges and credits.

That brought her monthly average for the past 18 months down to about $230. Vegas said she appreciates that, but she’s still not satisfied with the explanation for why she was paying hundreds of dollars for gas when her neighbors' expenses were so much less.

In March Vegas’ gas charge bill topped $200. According to Vegas, Entergy told her that was because she wasn’t charged at all for gas in January or December, but a review of her bills for 2023 shows that she was charged $104.12 for gas in January.

via GIPHY

GIF caption: The gas charges in Melissa Vegas’ Entergy bills vacillated wildly at the start of 2023. (Source: Entergy New Orleans; Illustration: Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

For now, Vegas is waiting to see what her next bill looks like before deciding on the next step.

One thing she can’t do is take her business elsewhere. New Orleans, like most cities, only has one power utility. Switching companies would mean leaving town.

“If I’m unhappy with my phone bill I switch to a different company,” Vegas said. “But you can’t do that with Entergy. It’s like you’re stuck with them.”

(Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)
RELATED: Help us report on utility billing issues in the Gulf States

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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