SOUTHEAST TENNESSEE LEGAL SERVICES

 

 

IF YOUR CANNOT PAY YOUR ELECTRIC BILL

This booklet is for people who receive their electric power from distributors served by the Tennessee Valley Authority. These companies are called "distributors" because they buy electricity from TVA and distribute it to local customers. Different standards apply to commercial customers and to people who do not get electric power from TVA distributors.

This booklet is not a substitute for legal advice. If you have a specific legal problem about electric service, talk with a lawyer.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU CANíT PAY YOUR BILL?

When you cannot pay your electric bill, the most important thing to do is to talk with your distributor in advance. Some distributors have counselors who work with customers and help them find ways to pay their bill. Most distributors will work with you if you tell them your problem in advance.

Do not wait until your bill is overdue. If you have a temporary problem, explain it to the distributor. If you have money coming in later, let them know.

Tell them if you have a special need for electric service. Do you keep medicine in the refrigerator? Are you on a kidney dialysis or oxygen machine? Do you have a SIDS alarm for an infant with health problems? Send a doctorís statement about your need for the medical device. (This notice may help in case of termination. It can also be important when power goes out.)

Distributors have to pay bills, too. If you cannot pay your bill and have no money coming in, you should try to lower your bill: Use less electricity or move to a more efficient home.

HOW CAN YOU LOWER YOUR ELECTRIC BILL?

Some distributors offer programs to help people save energy. If you think your house uses too much electricity, ask your distributor for an energy survey. It may tell you how to save money.

If you are buying a heat pump, the distributor may offer low-interest loans to help pay for it and make your house more efficient.

Ask your local Community Action Agency about weatherization programs to help pay for insulation and storm windows. The right weatherization efforts can save you a lot of money.

If you rent your home or apartment, your landlord may be able to participate in some conservation programs.

You can lower your electric bill by paying on time. Read your bill carefully. Avoid paying late charges.

In some counties, distributors, churches and agencies have programs to help pay electric bills.

SHOULD YOU USE BUDGET OR LEVEL BILLING?

Some distributors offer "budget" or "level billing." They allow a customer to estimate how much they will pay during the whole year and pay the same amount each month.

Level billing is not a good idea for many people. It makes it harder to know how much electricity you are using. At the end of the year, if the estimate of your bill was not accurate, you may have to pay more.

Some people on fixed incomes may need level billing.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU ARE ABOUT TO LOSE YOUR ELECTRIC SERVICE?

Several laws govern what a distributor must do before it can terminate electric service. Your distributor may have other protections.

TVA requires local distributors to follow certain rules before they can cut off power. These protections are called "service practice standards." Courts require distributors to follow certain procedures.

Before a distributor may cut off power, it must follow this procedure:

1. It must give notice to the customer that service is about to be terminated. Notice must go out at least five days before termination. This notice may not just be stamped on a bill. It must be a separate notice written in simple language.

2. The notice must tell the customer that he may request a hearing with the distributor to discuss the bill and termination.

3. The distributor must give a hearing if you request one. This hearing does not have to be very formal. It can be with an employee of the distributor. The hearing must be with someone who has authority to change the decision. At the hearing, the customer has the right to have a representative. This person can be a friend or legal representative. At the hearing, you have the right to ask questions and make a statement about the bill. The distributorís representative must state the reason why service is being terminated.

WHAT IF YOUR SERVICE IS CUT OFF WITHOUT NOTICE?

If the distributor does not give you notice before termination or does not advise you of your right to a hearing, the termination may be illegal. The distributor may have to pay for damages caused by termination, such as the cost of spoiled food, health problems or even motel costs.

If your electric service is cut off without proper notice, you should contact a legal services office or private attorney. Keep careful records of your contact with the distributor and any damages you suffer. Whenever you talk with a distributor, make a note of the date, the name of the person you talked with and what they said.

WHAT ARE COMMON PROBLEMS YOU MIGHT EXPECT?

Most distributors are reasonable in their termination practices. They will work with customers who try to pay their bills. Some are not so fair and may violate the law.

- They may not give notice and a hearing before termination

- They may bill you for charges you are not legally responsible for. For example, if you move into a different house, you do not have to pay the last tenantís bill. You do not have to pay a family memberís bill unless you are legally responsible for the debt.

- If you are recently divorced and your service was in your spouseís name, some distributors may allow the spouse to terminate your service without telling you. If the distributor knows that you are still in the house, it should give you notice and a chance to change the name on your bill without stopping service. Women might want to avoid this problem by putting both names on the bill.

- Where service is in the name of a landlord and the distributor knows a tenant rents the property, service should not be terminated without notice to the tenant.

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LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF MIDDLE TENNESSEE AND THE CUMBERLANDS

9 South Jefferson Avenue, Suite 102

Cookeville, Tennessee 38501

931-528-7436

Toll-Free 1-800-262-6817

May 2002