Some power consumers whose buildings were unoccupied during the community quarantine and were billed using the average of previous months’ consumption will pay only the P4.60 metering charge in the May 2020 billing to the First Catanduanes Electric Cooperative, Inc. (FICELCO).
Robert Tindugan, head of the cooperative’s Meter Reading, Billing and Collection (MRBC), told the Tribune that only the metering charge would be paid if the member-consumer-owners’ actual billing as read this week would show a “negative” figure.
They would be the lucky ones, as complaints are starting to rise on social media regarding abnormally high electricity billings for the month of May.
The May actual billing already includes the 20% discount granted by the cooperative to all 50,709 residential consumers under its Pantawid Liwanag Program during the COVID-19 pandemic. The discount will be applied on the Distribution Service and Metering (DSM) charges plus 12% Expanded Value-Added Tax.
It may be recalled that pursuant to an advisory of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), FICELCO and other electric cooperatives estimated their customers’ power consumption for March and April using the average of the previous months’ consumption.
For March, the cooperative added the kilowatt-hour used for the months of December 2019, January 2020 and February 2020, and then divided it by three to come up with the estimated consumption for the month.
But for the April estimate, it did not use the December 2019 consumption, which it said was abnormal due to the power interruption caused by typhoon “Tisoy,” and instead utilized the November 2019 figure.
Residential consumers, whose families have been confined to their homes due to the quarantine, should expect higher-than-usual bills due to “underbilling” as a result of the three-month estimate and higher actual consumption.
However, if the residential or commercial building was unoccupied from the start of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) until the present, FICELCO’s estimated bill for March and April would reflect the average of the three previous months and not what the customer expects to be minimal power consumption.
For example, a former member of the FICELCO Board of Directors was surprised to learn that the old family residence in Virac poblacion had been billed P1,900 for each month, despite the fact that the lone occupant had moved to Bigaa when the ECQ was declared.
FICELCO’s Tindugan clarified that the customer could either ask for a refund after an actual reading of the May 2020 consumption has been obtained or he/she could apply the “overbilled” amount to succeeding monthly power bills until the cooperative’s ‘debt’ to the customer is cleared.
Consumers who complain of excessive estimated power consumption reflected in the bills can request for an adjustment of their bills, with FICELCO personnel going to their homes or buildings to make an actual reading on the meter so they could make the adjustment in the bill.
For most residential consumers, the MRBC stated that they were more likely to be “underbilled” and would pay more for the May 2020 bill as the actual higher power consumption would be reflected in the bill.
The May 2020 actual power consumption could be as much as 60 percent higher than the estimated April 2020 billing, the Tribune estimates, using a Virac residence’s paid power bills and actual meter reading as reference.
Several churches of the Virac Diocese also complained about their May 2020 power bills which were over 25% higher than the previous month’s bill, despite the fact that the churches have not been opened to the public and thus should have lesser electricity consumption.
Already, the Sangguniang Bayan in Pandan town has reportedly passed a resolution inviting the FICELCO management to explain the abnormal rise in their monthly power consumption for the month of May 2020.
The MRBC head disclosed that although they were not allowed to undertake meter readings after the ECQ was imposed on March 17, their meter readers had already began their task in the northern towns and were allowed to complete the job for the March 2020 power consumption.
Thus, for March, there were no actual readings in Virac and other southern towns, with only the consumers in the northern towns receiving bills based on actual meter readings.
However, the cooperative admitted that, after securing permission from then Acting Governor Shirley Abundo, they were allowed to conduct meter readings but only on malls and similar big commercial establishments, selected schools and government offices, and private residences with large power consumptions.
The Tribune learned that the Catanduanes State University (CATSU), which normally pays between P800,000 to P1 million monthly for its power bills, was billed only the equivalent of P110,000.00 for its April consumption based on actual meter reading.
It added that the MRBC also read the meters of boarding houses especially in the capital town where there are at least 90 such building with rooms rented to students but was not able to gain access to all of them as their owners were not around and the meters were inside the buildings.
Aside from boarding houses, a number of FICELCO’s customers like churches, public and private schools, and commercial establishments which either limited or shut down their operations during the quarantine period are expected to complain about the higher May 2020 bills.
In a media interview two days earlier on May 19, General Manager Raul Zafe appealed to all consumers who are able to do so to pay their bills so that the cooperative will also be able to settle its obligations to its power suppliers.
The GM bared that it has collectibles of about P38 million for the months of March and April 2020, during which it recorded a poor collection efficiency of 65 percent and 47 percent, respectively.
While the cooperative was able to pay its March bill with the National Power Corporation (NPC) and Sunwest Water & Electric Co. (SUWECO), it has only partially settled its April bill, with P34 million still due to the two suppliers as of last week.
This has forced FICELCO to negotiate a loan with the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) so it could pay NPC and SUWECO in case the May 2020 collection falls short.
GM Zafe likewise reported that five consumers have been caught in a massive anti-power pilferage campaign and ordered to pay surcharges and penalties.
He urged MCOs not to steal from their own cooperative as there is no logic to stealing from their own property, citing its adverse effect on FICELCO’s operations especially in increasing systems loss.
In another development, the cooperative has started looking for a legal counsel after its former occupant, Atty. Rizalina Velasco-Tañon, resigned to fill a similar position at the provincial government.