State Rep. Dwight Dudley calls Duke Energy bills a 'rip off'

A call for new regulation of the utility giant

ST. PETERSURG, Fla. - A Florida state representative called the recent billing practices of Duke Energy a "rip off" and is calling for new laws regulating the utility.

Duke Energy announced that for the next month it was adjusting its meter counting schedule, in some cases adding 12 additional days to a given billing period during the peak of summer, costing customers more money.

The plan affects 267,000 customers in Pinellas County and surrounding areas serviced by the utility.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, (D-St. Petersburg), said it was no coincidence that Duke was making the adjustment during the brutally hot month of August.

"Duke picked the time that would be most expensive to consumers to maximize profits," Dudley said in a statement.

Dudley wants a law that would require non-emergency changes to billing practices be done during months that have the least impact on consumers, if such changes are even necessary at all.

Duke Energy defended the adjustment, calling the plan an improvement in service.

"This reroute maximizes efficiencies of our meter reading," said Nicole LeBeau, spokeswoman for the utility.  "Letters were mailed proactively explaining this project to customers."

"It's definitely not fair," said Gary Cohn, a retired St. Petersburg school teacher who said Duke shouldn't be hurting customers with higher bills, especially when people are paying such high prices already.

"And with the economy the way it is and people having trouble making ends meet, this is a really bad time to be getting extra money from people," Cohn said.

The company currently charges $11.34 per 100 kilowatt hours up to 1,000 hours.  Each 100 kilowatt hours used above 1,000 are charged at the premium rate of $13.70. By extending the billing cycle by a dozen days, customers are more likely to exceed 1,000 kilowatt hours.

Consumer advocates said in this case, the customer has little recourse.

"I'm amazed that the company can be this greedy," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network in St. Petersburg.  

Newton said the Florida Public Service Commission seems to rule in favor of the utility because so many of the members were appointed by lawmakers who receive large campaign contributions from Duke Energy.  

"They're saying we're legally allowed to do so, so say goodbye to your money. That's appalling," Newton said.

Duke Energy said customers who have financial problems can contact customer service to set up a payment plan.

The toll free number is 800-700-8744.

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