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Rural Electric Cooperative Consumers Have Rights

Rural electric cooperatives are generally referred to as unregulated utilities because the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) does not govern them. Also, with a few exceptions, the state statutes and rules governing utilities do not apply to these companies. Nevertheless, consumers who receive electric services from these companies do have rights, which are outlined in this article. 

Q: What is a rural electric cooperative?
A:
 A rural electric cooperative is an electric service company owned by the household members who receive its electric services. These cooperatives, which are governed by a member-elected board, were formed to establish electric service in rural areas not served by other utility companies. Co-ops are generally smaller organizations than investor-owned utilities and have smaller service areas. Currently 25 different cooperatives provide electric service in 77 of Ohio’s 88 counties. 

Q: How do I join a rural electric cooperative?
A:
 If you live in an area served by an electric cooperative, you must fill out an application and pay a small membership fee, usually $5 or $10, to join the cooperative and get service. If you are a tenant, then you will probably be asked to pay a security deposit. If you are a tenant, you may also need a letter from your landlord or a copy of your lease agreement that shows you have the right to live on the property you are renting.

Q: Who sets my utility rates and other policies?
A: 
The cooperative’s governing board sets the rates you are charged for electric service, as well as other policies, such as qualifications for membership and when and how electric services can be terminated. When you join a cooperative, you should receive a booklet explaining your member rights and responsibilities. You will receive information about annual meetings and have the right to vote for members of the governing board. You will also receive a monthly magazine with information about your cooperative. With respect to the practical aspects of receiving electric service, however, a cooperative is not different from an investor-owned utility.

Q: Do rural electric cooperatives have payment plans?
A: 
Most rural electric cooperatives allow you to voluntarily enroll in a payment plan. Unlike the Percentage of Income Payment (PIPP) plans available to investor-owned utility customers, these plans are not based on your income or ability to pay. If you have fallen behind on your bill, you must individually negotiate a repayment plan. Generally, the sooner you ask, the more willing your company is to work with you. You should contact the cooperative before your service is shut off to avoid the expenses of reconnection.

If someone in your household has a health problem and has medical equipment that requires electricity to run or medicine that requires refrigeration and you are facing a shut off for nonpayment, contact your provider immediately and ask about keeping your service on with a certificate of medical necessity. Your doctor will have to fill out a form, and you will have to enter into a payment plan to continue service.

Q: Do rural electric cooperatives accept Ohio’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) vouchers?
A:
 Yes. All rural electric cooperatives will accept the federally funded HEAP vouchers to help you pay your electric bill. 

Q: I gave my electric cooperative a HEAP voucher, but they still won’t turn my service back on. Don’t they have to honor the voucher?
A:
 While all companies will accept vouchers to pay, or help pay, your electric bill, the amount of the voucher may not be enough to cover what you owe. Because electric cooperatives are not subject to PUCO rules or orders, they do not have to accept voucher payment as sufficient to restore your service. 

Q: Who do I complain to if I have a problem with my unregulated utility?
A:
 Each utility should have a grievance process you can use to dispute your bill or challenge a termination notice. If the process is not explained in your member booklet or printed on your bill or notice of termination, you should contact the main office of the utility, explain that you disagree with the bill or termination and ask for a meeting or hearing.

If the company does not have a dispute process, you should contact your local legal aid for help (1-866-LAW-OHIO). You may also try calling the Ohio Attorney General’s help center (1-800-282-0515). While the PUCO has a complaint center, the PUCO does not deal with unregulated utilities and will not be able to help you resolve your complaint.

2/8/2013

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Linda Cook, senior staff attorney for the Ohio Poverty Law Center in Columbus.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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