Washington

Public Utilities

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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What are public utilities?

A "public utility" is a public utility district (PUD) or a governmental agency (such as a city or county) which provides water, electricity or gas. In this publication, we call these the "provider." To find out whether your services are public or private, call the company, or call the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) toll free: 1-800-562-6150.

Do not use this publication if:

The utility is provided by a private company or source, such as a community well of a homeowners' association, a cooperative such as Inland Power and Light or a privately owned utility company, such as Puget Power, Pacific Power and Light, Washington Water Power, Cascade Natural Gas, Northwest Natural Gas or Washington Natural Gas.

Privately owned utilities are regulated by the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). You may have other rights if you are served by a private utility. Call the UTC. The can send you pamphlets about private utilities.

Can the provider refuse to put service in my name?

No. But you may have to do certain things before service in your name can begin. Examples:  you may have to:

  • pay or enter into a repayment plan for your past due bills (even if they are from a different address),

  • pay a connect or reconnect fee,

  • pay a security deposit (you may ask to have this waived with proof of a good payment record), and

  • supply basic information and/or sign documents that you will pay for services.

May the provider shut off my service even if I have kids?

Yes. There is no statewide protection against utility shut off for people with kids.  Some counties or cities may have protections against shut off which we do not cover in this publication. Call your provider to ask about this.  Also, many providers will work with you if:

  • You have an emergency and
  • You have shown a history of good payment and a willingness to pay your back bills. 

May the provider shut off my service for nonpayment even in winter?

If you are low-income, a provider of residential heat may not shut your service off for nonpayment between November 15th and March 15th if you do all of the following:

  • Within five business days of getting the overdue notice, tell the provider that you cannot pay the bill. (Even if you do not do this within five days and your service is already shut off, you can still get your service reconnected by following the next steps. But you will have to pay any reconnection charges.)

  • Find out who runs the federal energy assistance program in your area (usually the local Community Action Program. Call the provider to find out). Give the program a statement of your household income for the past twelve months.  The program will make sure you are low-income. It will figure out the maximum amount you will have to pay on your bill.  (You should also ask the program about any of the other services required, such as weatherization or utility assistance.)

  • Prove you have applied for any other help available in your community for home heating, and give a statement that any help you get from these organizations will be used to pay current and future utility bills.

  • Prove you have applied for low-income weatherization help, if available for your house or apartment.

  • Agree to a payment plan that will get you current by the following October 15th.  You may pay as much as you want during the repayment period, but the provider cannot make you pay more than 7% of your monthly income (plus one-twelfth of any amounts billed and owing after you turned in your application).

  • Agree to pay the money owed even if you move.

A P.U.D. or city must include this information in your past due notice. It must also help you get through all the steps above.  The law for this section is found in The Revised Code of Washington RCW 54.16.285 (for P.U.D's) and RCW 35.21.300 (for cities). Read the law at your local library, or online: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=54.16.285 (for P.U.D.’s) and http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=35.21.300 (for cities).

May the provider shut off my service because my landlord did not pay his/her bill?

Yes, but you must get written notice of the shut-off and a chance to appeal.  Different providers have different notice periods, and different methods for appealing actions. 

If you did not get written notice of the shut-off, read the next section of this publication after reading this one. 

If the utility is already in your name, or if you and the landlord agreed that you would pay the utility, you're already responsible for payment. Contact the provider to arrange a repayment plan. 

If your landlord is currently responsible for the bill, the provider should give you written notice of a threatened shut off and a chance to go down and put the utility in your own name. Then you will be responsible for paying future bills for that address.  The provider cannot make you pay the past bills of the landlord or a past tenant. You may have to pay a security deposit and/or a reconnect fee.

While you are negotiating with the provider, talk with your landlord, too. Our state Residential Landlord-Tenant law prohibits the landlord from shutting off your utility service even if you are behind in rent.  The law also provides penalties for the landlord who intentionally shuts off service, including money damages for you, and attorney's fees and court costs. (See RCW 59.18.300

If you need to collect money from your landlord for intentionally shutting off your utility (that includes intentionally failing to pay the bill), see our publications Small Claims Court and Your Rights as a Tenant in Washington .  Deducting the money from your rent before you win a judgment against the landlord in court may result in your eviction. Talk to a lawyer before deducting anything from the rent.

What if I did not get any notice that my service was going to be shut off?

Several federal court cases say providers to notify customers before shutting off their service,[1] so that tyou have a chance to tell your side of the story. If you are a tenant whose lease states that the landlord is responsible for your utility bill, read the section above, as well as this one. 

If your utility was shut off without notice to you, call the provider immediately to speak with the person in charge.  The provider should turn your service back on right away and keep it on until you have gotten the proper notice and chance to respond. In some cases, this may only buy you the time it will take for the provider to give you the proper notice.  If it refuses to restore service, ask to speak to the lawyer who handles their affairs (often the city attorney). There is no specific law on how much notice must be given. Courts have found time periods as short as hours acceptable.

May I pay an average monthly amount throughout the year so I do not have such high winter heating bills or summer water bills? 

Yes. Any provider of utility service to heat your residence, or cities providing water, must offer low-income customers the option of "budget billing," or "equal payment."  It must do this no matter what time of year you ask for it, no matter how long you have lived at your current place, and no matter whether you rent or own. Washington Administrative Code 480-90-138.

Am I responsible for bills that the last tenant or the landlord did not pay?

Usually, the answer is no. (See next paragraph for the exceptions to this.) If the utility was cut off, however, you may have to pay a reconnect fee. 

You probably are responsible for all or part of past bills in someone else's name if you did have an individual obligation, such as you lived at the address during the time billed, or if you agreed with the landlord or last tenant to pay the bill for that time period.

What if I disagree with my bill?

If your bill is too high because of a water leak or other emergency situation that was not your fault, many providers will work with you to make a payment plan and/or to cancel part of the charge. Call the provider and explain what happened.  They do not have to work with you, so the more polite you are, the better your chances.

Any time you disagree with the amount of your bill, call your provider right away. State the reason you disagree and, if the problem cannot be fixed, request an administrative hearing. Many providers have deadlines for asking for hearings after you get the bill. Find out what the deadlines are in your situation. 

You should ask for a hearing even if you are trying to work it out informally with the provider. If the informal process does not work, you will not have missed the deadline. Ask for the appeal in writing. Save a copy of the dated request for yourself. 

Bring any papers or people who can support your claim to the hearing. Also, bring extra copies of the papers with you for the PUD and for the hearing officer (judge). The hearing officer will explain any appeal rights you have if you disagree with his/her decision.

What if I am charged for someone else's bill without my consent?

You are not liable for anyone else's bill but your own, unless you agree to be. However, property owners are liable for utilities provided to the land they own, even if the tenant was supposed to pay. You do not always have to sign a paper to be liable for someone else's bill. Consistently paying someone else's bill, having your name on their account, or promising you would pay may all be seen as agreeing to be responsible for their account. 

If you have been responsible for someone's account in the past, but no longer want to be, send a dated, written statement to the provider stating that you will no longer be responsible.  Include the name(s) and account number(s).  Keep a copy of the letter for yourself.  If charges for those accounts show up on your bill anyway, see the section above regarding billing disagreements.

Where can I get help paying my utility bills?

PUDs and other providers may provide a substantial discount on electrical service to senior citizens and low-income families. Contact your provider to find out if it offers a discount. Most PUDs have funds to help low-income households with utility bills they cannot pay, especially during the winter months. Different PUDs have different requirements for eligibility. 

Also try your local Community Action Program (CAP) and DSHS office.  DSHS has programs for families with children called Additional Requirements for Emergent Needs (or AREN) and Additional Requirements (or AR). These can help with utilities that are about to be shut off.  This program is only available once a year. For more information regarding these programs, see our publication Additional Requirements.

Where can I get more information?

PUDs and other providers must provide you with written information about:

  • their services
  • their policies and
  • their procedures about your rights as a utility consumer.

This information includes explanations about among other things:

  • the providers' credit and deposit requirements, rates and charges
  • metering and billing, payment arrangements, and
  • complaint procedures.

The provider must send you this information if you ask for it. For more information, contact your provider. (The full list of information you are entitled to is in (WAC) 480-90-103.)

Footnote:

1. BellSouth Telecomm v. Kerrigan, 55 F.Supp. 2d 1314, 1320 (N.D. Fla. 1999). 

 

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This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of the date of its printing,
June 2012.

© 2012 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)