Vectren drastically underestimated thousands of electric bills this summer, confronting some customers this month with catch-up bills that were as much as quadruple their usual amounts.
“I was crying all morning,” said Evansville resident Angela Catille. “This month I have a $960 bill. It’s normally about a $300 bill. I have four kids. We’re going to have to cut way back. There will be nothing extra, I just have to pay this bill.”
During the summer months, Vectren billed Catille about $170 per month.
“I just thought, for once in my life we had kept everything down,” Catille said.
It’s the same story around the city. Vectren estimates monthly bills for 5,000 to 7,000 customers in Southwestern Indiana were estimated low this summer, and they now face a “trued-up” bill.
The company did not consistently read customers’ meters over the summer months, and instead estimated usage — and the algorithm used to calculate those estimations was wrong.
“It was a mistake,” said Natalie Hedde, Vectren’s manager of corporate communications. “The algorithm that was used to equate what that baseline usage should be on estimates was low.”
Vectren is now catching up on its meter reading, which means all those customers who were underestimated must make up the difference in a single bill.
The Courier & Press began investigating this issue after receiving a call from a local business owner on Friday concerned that her bill had tripled without warning.
Vectren initially said that more bills than usual were estimated over the summer because the company switched meter reading contractors, and it was changing the readers’ routes.
“Without getting into specifics, there are challenges that happen with any contractor transitions,” Hedde said Tuesday morning. She added that the anonymous caller’s high bill was likely atypical.
“I don’t want to give the impression that that is normal,” Hedde said. “She is experiencing something hopefully that is an anomaly.”
But response to a Courier & Press’ Facebook post showed the issue was widespread. Hundreds of people replied to the post with stories of bills that were several times what they expected.
Tiffany Hillenbrand’s bill went from $170 to $458 this month. Nick Hughes’ went from about $300 to $806. Amanda Marie’s went from about $170 to $954.
“I couldn’t believe the bill when I got it,” Marie said. “I thought, surely this must be a mistake. I was on the phone asking why, and the guy was so short with me. I don’t know how I’m going to get through the winter.”
A Vectren employee told her the company had estimated her bill the previous three months. Marie moved to a new house four months ago, so she didn’t realize the bills were low.
“They hadn’t read the meter since I moved in,” Marie said. “I don’t know why, for that many months in a row, the bill was estimated. I cried a whole lot. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
But mistake or no, customers whose bills were underestimated must pay up, said the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
“They are responsible for it,” said Natalie Derrickson, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. “At this point, if a customer feels like their bill was estimated and they have larger bills than they were expecting, their first step should be to contact Vectren. If the customer feels like the issue is not resolved, they should contact us.”
Vectren is offering no-interest payment plans for customers whose bills were estimated low, Hedde said. So, thousands of people could be paying off their summer bills over the winter.
It “was a mistake, and we were very transparent in telling the customers that it was a mistake,” Hedde said. “We understand that customers are frustrated by that, which is why we did the proactive communication to them to offer payment arrangements.”