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P19M fine won't hurt: ERC urged to dig Meralco's 'billions' of 'consumer money'

P19M fine won't hurt: ERC urged to dig Meralco's 'billions' of 'consumer money'

MANILA, Philippines — The P19 million fine imposed against the Manila Electric Corporation (Meralco) supposedly for “bill shock” incidents would have no severe impact on the company, a consumer’s group said Thursday.

So, the Power for People Coalition (P4P) appealed to the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to instead look into allegations that Meralco has been “holding on to” billions-worth of refunds to its customers.

ERC earlier slapped Meralco with a P19 million fine for its failure to notify consumers that their bills during the lockdown periods were based on estimated consumption for the past three months.

“While we welcome the plan to fine Meralco for its bill shock shenanigans, it will not really hurt the company if it’s not in the billions and if it can only pass the additional cost to consumers,” P4P said in a statement.

“We prefer that ERC instead look into the issue of consumer money that Meralco is holding on to, as these refunds amount to the billions and can have a direct positive impact on the cash flow of residential customers, more than any fine ever could,” the group added.

According to ERC chair Agnes Devanadera’s statement, Meralco’s inability to inform its customers of the sudden change in the billing system caused chaos and confusion during the pandemic.

As the COVID-19 outbreak forced the national government to place the entire Luzon and other areas under an enhanced community quarantine and suspend work except for essential services, Meralco decided to postpone meter reading activities and rely on a consumer’s average consumption in the last three months prior to the billing cycle covered since the lockdown started.

However, when meter reading activities resumed, Meralco made adjustments to the billings, and eventually corrected discrepancies in the March and April billings.  This led to higher bills, which had customers doubting that Meralco might be taking advantage of the pandemic.

Meralco clarified that the electric bills were fairly computed and that the sudden increase was brought by increased time at home and notably since many businesses opted for a work-from-home arrangement for its employees, no to mention the strict quarantine took place during the country’s dry season when the climate is hot.

Still, customers questioned whether it was possible that bills rose exponentially, with one user saying that his bill rose from just P2,600 and P2,500 in March and April to over P9,000 in May.  Another Meralco customer said that he has not spent time at his Quezon City home since the lockdowns started, but he was still billed around P1,000.

Meralco had assured it would look into the issue.

As for ERC’s fine, Meralco said it has yet to receive a copy of the order. Nevertheless, it said it would file necessary pleadings after consultations with corporate lawyers.

In March, Meralco was urged to just refrain from billing customers since the pandemic affected the majority of the population’s livelihood and that consumption expenses be sourced from the supposed P29.6 billion overrecovery of annual distribution charges, that groups believe should be returned to consumers.

KGA

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