Thursday, May 10, 2007

PNM Discriminates in Favor of Web-Complainers
Classist discrepancy Makes PNM Look Stupid, IMHO

May 10, 2007
To whom it may concern:

I have a problem with PNM, one that is based in both fact and extrapolation based on what I tried to do with a disconnect notice and what I think it means. I'll give you the facts first - then I'll give you my opinion. Both of these should stop and give you pause about the the state-supported monopoly utility company in our state.

In the middle of April, I received a disconnect notice. I wasn't surprised to receive one - I had gone an entire winter without paying my bill. In fact, I was expecting one, and surprised it hadn't come sooner. As a recipient of SSI living on a fixed income, there reached a certain point where my bills were so large I simply hid from them - not exactly the most pro-active thing to do, but certainly in keeping with my symptoms as a chronic sufferer of BiPolar disorder, PTSD, and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

When spring came, I was less burdened by depression, and ready to take on the issues I had avoided over the winter. The disconnect notice came with a bill for around $750 - I applied for LIHEAP and received $152, still a far cry short from paying the entire bill. As it stands, my monthly income runs at $603 per month, giving me just enough to pay my rent and divvy up the remainder among several bills I receive. And so, with $50 in hand, I stepped into the PNM offices on Pacheco Street in Santa Fe and went to the Customer Service area in back to see what we could do about a payment plan.

That was on or about May the 1st. I stepped up to an office, told them my problem and asked to be placed on a payment plan. I was told that there was no payment plan that I could have - that I should've applied for Budget Billing sometime long before the problem reached this crisis point, and upon informing them that I had already applied for and received LIHEAP, was given a list of charities such as Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul for whom I could apply for funds to pay my bill.

Let's just think about that for a minute - a client walks in and offers to pay a bill in installments, and the company says "No, please apply to these charities for the money because we need it NOW." Think about that as you weigh the rest of this letter.

I made an attempt to go to St. Vincent de Paul, but I simply couldn't believe that I would be turned down from making payments in good faith, so on May the 3rd, I returned to PNM and this time went to a different clerk. And again, I was told that no payment plan was possible and that no extension would be possible and that I had to come up with the money or my utilities would be turned off. In other words, I had to *pay now* or get my stuff turned off, which would invariably result in more fees, and probably (VERY likely) PNM never seeing its money. Does this make anything close to good business sense? I for one cannot see how.

Being a resourceful sort of fellow, I decided I'd cruise around on PNM's website and see what I could find. Finding nothing to support my notion that "pay or else" wasn't the only option, I decided to craft a letter to Customer Service. (Appendix A) I didn't expect much - I had already been informed *twice* that PNM is an all-or-nothing creditor, so you can imagine my surprise when I received a phone call the following day from a chap named Eric telling me that I was going to get my payment plan after all. He later sent me a letter (Appendix B) reaffirming that was the case - but not before I expressed my concerns about the following:

1) Why is it that in the office, customer service representatives appear to be unaware of the availability of payment plans, offering an all or nothing option, but a customer who sends a letter from the website elicits a totally different response?

2) Could the outcome of a letter have something to do with the fact that most schlubs will wander in off the street and just ask (and then go away) when real gadflies like myself (who presumably have intellectual and class resources) will send letters and create paper trails?

I'd like to thank PNM ever so much for the payment plan offering, though I'm quite sad it took three tries to get one. Doesn't the law require utilities to offer payment plans to customers who indicate an inability to pay their bills due to financial reasons? If this is the case, why didn't the first two company representatives know this? I'm also sad about the implications of verbal request versus written ones - it suggests a classist sort of tier for determining who gets a break and who doesn't. I knew all along that eventually, someone would tell me a payment plan would be possible - but that *IS NOT* necessarily the case for people who have less education, less intellectual resources, less time on their hands, and who may, as is the case for many people in our state, operate from the relative handicap of having English as a second language.

For SHAME on PNM if this is not an isolated incident. As a citizen of New Mexico, I demand to know what the people who work the Customer Service desks are told in regard to payment plans for overdue customers. And I'd like to know why customer service representatives such as Eric, who are responding to emailed inquiries, have a different understanding of PNM policies than those at the customer service desk at the Pacheco street office. Are payment plans being reserved for those only able and persistent enough to know and demand their rights? I am concerned that PNM's practices not only violate the law, but are also potentially racist and classist, and may have violated my rights under the American for Disabilities Act. If this is found to be the case, I hope that PNM will be severely punished.

When I'd twice been told by PNM that I was not entitled to a payment plan, I contacted Community Action New Mexico in search of answers. When I talked with them, I learned not only that Chapter 17 of the New Mexico Administrative code requires utilities to offer payment plans to customers expressing an inability to pay a past due bill, but also that PNM is obligated to *negotiate* with customers to arrive at a reasonable payment plan. When Eric offered me the payment plan, he did not make any effort to determine if the proposed plan was reasonable given my income, expenses, or any other circumstances. Nor did he indicate to me that I had a right to negotiate based on these factors. I accepted the plan that Eric offered because I had no idea I had the right to negotiate, and I'm concerned that other customers are not being adequately informed of their rights to negotiate for a plan that is reasonable.

In the interest of assuring that all customers receive the treatment we are entitled to by law, I will continue working with Community Action New Mexico and the PRC until PNM's policies and practices surrounding payment plans are clarified. I believe that PNM has to answer to what precisely occurred here, and if it is happening as a systemic practice, appropriate parties such as the PRC and the media need to be informed. Classist treatment of consumers will not be tolerated by a corporation that enjoys a clear monopoly - in this case, PNM is that sort of company, and need to be watched and regulated appropriately.

Thank you very much
Gregory Pleshaw