GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Last week, Josephine County implemented its ordinance intending to shield residents who refuse to accept Pacific Power's smart meter installation from any fees that might cause "economic hardship." On Monday, the utility company responded, beseeching residents to keep up on their bills regardless of the uncertain landscape.
"We urge customers in Josephine County who have opted out of the upgrade to continue to pay applicable fees, in order to stay current on their account and avoid disconnection for non-payment and additional fees to reconnect," Pacific Power said in a statement.
Ostensibly, the County and Pacific Power are in agreement on this point.
"Filing this request for relief does NOT mean that you no longer have to pay your utility bills," the County's Claim for Relief form proclaims in bold lettering. "Until you receive official notification to the contrary, you MUST continue to pay your entire utility bills on time, including any surcharge or opt-out fee."
The disagreement comes down to what constitutes hardship for a resident and what Pacific Power is obligated to do when a resident insists on receiving relief from fees — specifically, after refusing to have a smart meter installed in the place of the old analog meter, or requesting that an already-installed smart meter be replaced with the old, hand-read variety.
In the statement issued on Monday, Pacific Power encouraged customers in need of assistance paying their bills to contact them to discuss options, and "guide them to programs that can help."
Josephine County's ordinance is much more definite in its procedure, even if it remains vague on what consitutes a hardship. Under the terms of the ordinance, anyone experiencing "difficulty with paying bills" due to smart meter opt-out fees should contact Pacific Power and lobby for relief. If the utility "refuses to comply with the consumer's demand," they can then file a Claim for Relief form with the County.
"If the Board of County Commissioners determines that the claim appears to be meritorious, the Board will notify the electric utility that the consumer who filed the Request has requested relief under the Ordinance," the ordinance reads.
If Pacific Power still doesn't grant relief, according to the ordinance, the County will penalize the company $2,000 per violation.
"The County may, at its option, prosecute each violation in its own name, or it may make the electric utility the defendant in a civil proceeding seeking court orders requiring payment of the fine, and may seek attorney fees and costs in any such action," the ordinance says.
Without any known cases of a "violation" as yet, it remains to be seen how the County or Pacific Power will handle these cases in practice. However, Pacific Power has made it clear that the court of law will be the ultimate decider.
"Josephine County’s recent adoption of an ordinance related to smart meters and the newly-enacted rules are the subject of ongoing litigation initiated by the Public Utility Commission of Oregon," Pacific Power said. "This means there is still uncertainty on whether Josephine County’s existing ordinance and new rules can be legally enforced by Josephine County.
"Until a resolution has been reached, we are under legal obligation to charge the approved opt-out tariffs determined by the Public Utility Commission to all customers throughout our Oregon service territory on a non-discriminatory basis. This ensures all Oregon customers are subject to the same rates."