Friday, October 24, 2014
My Account  | Login
Nashua;49.0;http://forecast.weather.gov/images/wtf/small/ovc.png;2014-10-24 08:40:29
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Billing problems hit some Liberty Utilities gas customers in area

NASHUA – Earlier this month, Andrew Wilson got an unexpected letter from his natural gas company, Liberty Utilities.

“I got a bill for close to $1,000, which was a surprise, because I’d been paying my bills all along,” the Nashua software engineer said. “The very next day, I got a notice of discontinuation and was only given to the 15th of the month.” ...

Sign up to continue

Print subscriber?    Sign up for Full Access!

Please sign up for as low as 36 cents per day to continue viewing our website.

Digital subscribers receive

  • Unlimited access to all stories from nashuatelegraph.com on your computer, tablet or smart phone.
  • Access nashuatelegraph.com, view our digital edition or use our Full Access apps.
  • Get more information at nashuatelegraph.com/fullaccess
Sign up or Login

NASHUA – Earlier this month, Andrew Wilson got an unexpected letter from his natural gas company, Liberty Utilities.

“I got a bill for close to $1,000, which was a surprise, because I’d been paying my bills all along,” the Nashua software engineer said. “The very next day, I got a notice of discontinuation and was only given to the 15th of the month.”

Wilson began hitting the phones and said it was difficult getting anything out of Liberty, which bought National Grid’s natural gas operations in New Hampshire in July 2012 and transferred the billing systems in September 2013.

Eventually, Wilson found that electronic payments he had continued making to National Grid weren’t being forwarded to Liberty Utilities. He thinks it has been fixed, although he won’t be entirely certain until his next bill goes through.

He is certain, however, that he’s not alone.

“I finally got somebody from consumer affairs and coaxed out of him that yes, this is happening to many other people,” he said.

The state Public Utilities Commission says customer complaints about Liberty Utilities billing and service issues almost doubled between September and April compared to the same period during the previous three years.

So many people complained, in fact, that Liberty Utilities, at the urging of the Public Utilities Commission, has delayed a transfer of billing systems for National Grid’s former electric customers. That transfer was slated to happen over Memorial Day weekend, but now it will take place in July.

Liberty Utilities is a huge water, natural gas and electric transmission and distribution utility. It’s part of Algonquin Power Corp., of Toronto, Canada, which owns $3.5 billion worth of assets throughout North America and reported $675 million of revenue last year.

In July 2012, it bought National Grid’s New Hampshire operations for $285 million. That covered 83,000 natural gas customers in 30 communities from Nashua to the Lakes Region, plus 47,000 electric customers from the former Granite State Electric territory covering 21 communities, none in Greater Nashua.

Although the transfer of operations such as repair and installation took place quickly, transfer of the “back office” systems like billing and customer care didn’t really occur until September.

“These are complex conversions. It’s not unusual for things to take six to 12 months for everything to settle in,” Bill Sherry, Liberty Utilities vice president of customer care, said in a phone interview. “It’s the complexity of the systems, going from the legacy systems of one company to the systems of another company.”

Sherry said it was not uncommon for utilities, which operate within state-level regulation, to encounter issues with billing and customer care when systems change hand. The best-known example in New Hampshire was the 2008 FairPoint Communications purchase of Verizon’s landlines, which caused so many service problems that the state stepped in.

“Once you flip the switch, then you learn all the problems with operating systems that may come up,” Sherry said.

Sherry said Liberty Utilities has been improving things, although an April 16 report by the PUC staff said they had “seen little improvement” in numerous issues that came up starting in November.

Those issues, the report said, included billing delays, delays in the posting of payments to accounts, accounts that have not received bills since the conversion, and “repetitive or cumulative bills.”

Sherry attributed many problems to customers who had third-party electronic payment systems, such as through a bank or PayPal. Those need to be manually updated, or the money would keep going to National Grid.

“There’s the dynamic of customer behavior to be considered,” he said.

He said about 3,000 customers were affected at first, a number that has fallen over time to “the 300 range.”

Wilson said the electronic system was part of the problem because it made it harder to see changes.

“If you’re paying electronically, you might not have noticed there was any change until your money goes out the window,” he said.

Wilson said he was unimpressed by Liberty Utilities’ customer service, but Sherry argued that it will improve.

The company moved headquarters and other services into offices in Londonderry after the National Grid purchase, where it now has about 30 customer-service staff, part of roughly 140 people working in operations.

Liberty Utilities plans to open walk-in offices, where people can pay bills or ask questions in person, in Londonderry, Salem, Lebanon and Tilton.

“It’s been years since a utility had walk-in offices in New Hampshire,” Sherry said.

Any customer who has problems or questions, he said, should call Liberty Utilities at 1-800-833-4200.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).