Pandemic Results in Surprise Bills for Some Utility Customers

NBCUniversal, Inc.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, some North Texans are opening their mail to surprise utility bills.

Sina Compton recently moved to Colleyville with her four children as they relocated to Texas in the wake of her husband’s death.

In January, their Atmos bill totaled $48.90.

It climbed above $100 for the next couple of months before starting a slow decline as the weather warmed.

“Every time I got my Atmos bill. I just paid it. It was a different amount every month,” Compton said.

She felt sure she was paying for what they’d used until July when her bill spiked from $26.09 to $624.25 in one month’s time.

“I was bursting out in tears. I didn’t know. Did I have a leak?” Compton said.

Instead, she said Atmos customer service told her the pandemic was to blame.

“She was so rude and she said, ‘Nope. You don’t have a leak. We just couldn’t come out to read the meter because of COVID,’ which made no sense to me either because the meter’s outside,” Compton said.

In a statement, an Atmos representative wrote:

“The pandemic necessitated an increased frequency of estimated bills as we implemented new protocols to keep our employees and customers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In Texas, per the rules of service, estimated bills may be submitted provided that an actual meter reading is taken at least every six months.”

Though Atmos didn't have numbers for how many customers were impacted, Compton said she heard from several neighbors in similar situations.

It’s a practice that’s novel to the recently widowed mother of four who just recently relocated her family to Texas.

Compton now believes the high usage happened when she heated the pool at her new home.

"I'm going to pay that bill. I used it, so I'm not trying to get out of it,” she said.

But with a bill showing estimates rather than usage, she said she had no barometer to know just how much she was using.

“I'm a single mom of four, and $625 is a lot of money. If I would have known you guys were estimating that, I would've put more money aside or already put it in an account. But they didn't, and that's what's upsetting to me,” Compton said.

In the statement, Atmos added:

“Anytime customers receive a high estimated bill, Atmos Energy always offers extended payment arrangement options that include installment plans to spread out the payment of their balance over time; federal assistance funds through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); and Atmos Energy's Sharing the Warmth program funds. Financial assistance is available on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible residential customers through local energy assistance agencies.

"As always, if a customer has a question about the accuracy of their bill, we ask that they please call us immediately at 888-286-6700.  If the customer isn’t satisfied with the agent’s explanation of their bill, they can request that we send a technician to read their meter and confirm their actual consumption.  For even faster results, they may take a picture of the meter and submit it to us at our website through our Account Center, and we can review the bill that way.”

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