OPINION: Tenant left scrambling after utility bill jumps 800% in one month

Credit: Kathi Pierson

Credit: Kathi Pierson

An unusual turn of events left residents at Avana North Point, an apartment complex in Alpharetta, astounded when they received their electricity bills.

Kathi Pierson’s April electricity bill increased from $61 to $562, more than 800%. She was understandably confused: She works 10-12 hours a day, five days a week and lives alone in an 800-square-foot apartment. But, according to her bill, her electricity usage jumped from an average of 465 kilowatt hours in the preceding six months to a whopping 2,548 kilowatt hours.

“What if I had three little mouths to feed?” said Pierson, who paid the electricity bill, fearing late fees or, worse, eviction.

When she contacted the management office, she discovered she wasn’t alone. At least two dozen other residents had noticed something strange on their April and May bills, she said.

Pierson called me because she wasn’t getting much of an explanation from any of the three entities involved.

So, to try to help her find out what caused such an eye-popping increase, I contacted Greystar, the real estate group that owns Avana North Point; Conservice, the third-party utility management company that Greystar uses to bill residents; and Georgia Power. I discovered a breakdown in communication and processes that has left residents scrambling.

The problem began in September 2022, when a new resident at Avana North Point contacted Georgia Power to set up an account. New residents at the complex are told verbally that they do not have to set up accounts with Georgia Power, and that message is reinforced in their lease agreements and in welcome emails.

There is one primary Georgia Power meter for the apartment complex. The landlord receives the bill and is responsible for allocating charges among tenants, in accordance with their usage. Individual usage is measured by submeters across the complex that are maintained and managed by the landlord.

When Georgia Power established an account for the new tenant in September, that created a conflict with the landlord’s account. The error was discovered and corrected the following month, and the apartment complex was back billed for the previous period, according to representatives at Georgia Power. The adjustments were completed in January 2023. But bills have been erratic for the past two months.

“We sincerely appreciate and understand that the apartment complex’s residents would have concerns about such a large, substantial increase showing up in their monthly bills,” said Jacob Hawkins, spokesman for Georgia Power, adding that solutions or payments are the responsibility of the landlord. The utility is following up to see if special arrangements can be made or if any assistance can be provided, he said.

I did not get an answer as to why Georgia Power’s customer service would establish new service on an existing account, without first contacting the account holder.

Greystar representatives said this is the first time this sort of mix-up has happened. They realized something was off when the property manager conducted the monthly review of resident bills and saw higher than average charges. The property manager sent the bills back to Conservice for review. Conservice later delivered the bills to residents without having them approved again, said Andrea Davis, spokeswoman for Greystar.

“We have been working with Conservice to identify and correct the underlying issues. Additionally, we will conduct an audit of the submeters to determine if any are not properly working, and Conservice has indicated they will put measures in place to help prevent billing errors,” Davis said.

Davis said that, once the audit is complete, they will adjust bills as necessary and continue to work with residents. “We don’t want anyone to have a late charge due to a billing error, and we will work with them to come up with a solution,” she said.

On Monday, Pierson told me she had received a small credit on her $272 May bill for which her usage was noted as 1,261 kilowatt hours, still an abnormally large amount for her regular usage.

Submeters bill residents for actual usage so it’s improbable that consumption would jump from 443 kilowatt hours to 2,548 kilowatt hours in a month, then drop nearly 50% the following month to 1,261 kilowatt hours.

I didn’t get much clarity on exactly why those usage rates are so erratic. I contacted Conservice. But, like Pierson, I never received a response. Maybe it’s a faulty submeter or maybe it’s faulty math when figuring out what the back billing should be for each tenant.

Residents at Avana should pay for electricity used, but they shouldn’t pay the price of human error or faulty equipment.

Back billing sets off alarm bells for residents. It should be clear to customers how the amounts are determined and how long they were under-billed.

It should also be clear what recourse they have if they aren’t satisfied with the resolution.

Pierson said she feels she is being penalized for the mistakes of others.

“I have over two years of bills that are pretty consistent. For two months, I have been paying well over what I should be paying,” she said. “I am still trying to find out what is going on.”

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