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Utility complaints leap 261% in Utah
Better methods of reporting get part of blame

Utah residents filed more than 14,000 complaints about the state's electricity, natural gas and telecommunications providers with the Utah Division of Public Utilities in 1998.

The total of 14,249 is an increase of 261 percent from the 3,943 complaints filed in 1997.Some of that whopping jump can be accounted for by improved reporting methods, according to Kelly Francone, research analyst for the Utah Committee of Consumer Services. The committee is designed to look out for the state's residential, agricultural and small commercial utility users.

But Francone also blamed part of the rise on the plethora of new telecommunications companies entering the state and an increase in slamming, a practice in which a customer's long-distance telephone service provider is changed without the person's approval.

"I also think customers are getting more savvy," she said Friday. "People understand more what they can complain about." Of last year's 14,000-plus complaints, Francone said, only 1,928 had to be referred to the state's Public Service Commission because they could not be resolved at the company level.

And of those 1,928 complaints, US WEST was responsible for 1,030.

"Following the trend from both 1996 and 1997, US WEST had the most complaints at more than 1,000, up 26 percent from the previous year," Francone's report said. "The company had 433 percent more complaints than Questar, at 193, and 119 percent more than PacifiCorp, at 471."

US WEST also had the highest number of complaints per 10,000 customers, with 10.5. It was followed by PacifiCorp with 8.34 and Questar with 3.32 complaints per 10,000 customers, respectively.

Michael Frandsen, US WEST spokesman in Utah, said the company's complaint figures probably were affected by an employees' strike in August 1998.

"That put us behind, obviously, and it took us much of the year to catch up," Frandsen said. "We had two weeks of a very unusual situation. We scrambled as quickly as we could after the strike to bring things back to normal and to significantly increase customer service, but the strike took its toll."

Slamming also added to the company's complaint level during the year, Frandsen said.

"We got about 500,000 complaints companywide about slamming (in 1998)," he said. "We have to work with customers to get them back with the long-distance provider they actually want. . . . There is tremendous competition in the long-distance market, and a lot of unscrupulous providers out there are not very honest in the way they switch customers."

Francone's report showed that, for the 56 regulated utilities in the state besides the "big three," complaints rose from 68 in 1997 to 361 in 1998.

"Nearly 70 percent of these complaints were made against long-distance providers under the slamming and cramming categories," the report said.

Although it had fewer total complaints than US WEST, PacifiCorp's 40 percent increase in complaints from 1997 to 1998 was highest among the big three. David Eskelsen, spokesman for PacifiCorp subsidiary Utah Power, said part of the increase may be due to a recent change in customer service systems.

"Once we got our new customer service system up and running, then we did turn our attention to past-due collections, so I think that aspect of the business did see a spike in recent months," he said.

Eskelsen said he thinks PacifiCorp's proposed merger with British utility ScottishPower will lead to a reduction in complaints in the future.

"I think that you'll see our customer service area really concentrating . . . on reducing complaints and making sure that we solve the customer's issue, whatever it is, on the first call," Eskelsen said.

Questar had the smallest number of complaints and the smallest percentage jump from 1997 to 1998, at 22 percent. Questar spokesman Darren Shepherd said the company has made a conscious effort to improve efficiency and keep rates down for the past few years, and some of its complaints may have resulted from a 1998 spike in natural gas prices.

"I'm pleased to hear that we have the lowest number of complaints among the (major) utilities, but I'm still disappointed that we had complaints as high as we did," Shepherd said. "It lets us know we have a lot to do to make sure customers can get their complaints resolved with us and not go anyplace else."

Frandsen agreed that the bottom line is that US WEST must continue to focus on improving customer service. "One complaint against us is one too many."