July 2, 2008

Electrocuted by La ENEE

electric rate cartoon, HondurasElectricity cost adjustment!
Dario Banegas, La Prensa, Honduras

"Electrocuted by La ENEE" was a recent La Prensa headline, in which the latest increase in electric bills from the corrupt government-owned La ENEE and the apparent errors by the corrupt billing company, SEMEH, were discussed. Though the May rate increase was approximately 26% (following an increase of 14% in January), many people of scarce resources experienced increases of 200% and more, much more.

In the San Pedro La ENEE office alone, more than 300 people per day are arriving to complain about bills. Juan José Rivera, 84 years old, who didn't even have bus fare, walked for hours to La ENEE to have his L.5,196 (US $275) bill corrected. He was told they couldn't help him.

Jemy Torres, who normally receives a monthly electric bill of about L.300 (US $15), was there to make arrangements for a payment plan for her latest bill of L.3,700 (US $196), which she believed to be in error but La ENEE would not investigate.

Irma Miranda wonders how her husband's monthly salary of L.3,400 (US $180), which barely covered the necessities for their family, will stretch to cover electricity when their monthly bill increased from L.230 (US $12) to L.1803 (US $95).

Many of the exaggerated bills are thought to be a result of misreading of meters or malfunctioning electric meters − many of those reported months earlier but no attempt to repair or replace the meters was made. For a sampling of La Prensa articles (in Spanish), see here.

"They didn't check the meter and I have to pay a bill of L.1,105 (US $58) for one fluorescent light bulb and an electric fan that I use!" said Daysi Ferández. Victoria Hernández added, "It is an injustice. We are never going to get out of poverty with what these masked robbers do to the people. The ones who make the decisions have money. They don't care what happens to the rest."

A recent television news story showed a poor elderly woman crying while she filed a complaint with the Fiscalía (district attorney's office). Though her home only had three light bulbs, a small refrigerator, and a radio, her latest electric bill was L.14,000! (US $740, or approximately three times the monthly minimum wage of Honduras.) That compared to her normal monthly bill of US $5-10. She was shaking as she told reporters she was afraid she would lose her home.

The government subsidizes the cost of electricity for the poor (approximately 64% of users!). Those who use less than 150 kilowatts per month pay nothing. However, due to irregular reading of the meters, some of those people are passing the magic 151 kilowatt mark and are losing the subsidy when their meter isn't read for 31 days or more. Complainers are sent back and forth between SEMEH (the billing company) and La ENEE (the electric company) with both pointing fingers of blame at the other. The Fiscalía points fingers at both, saying that few cases have received responses.

SEMEH has had an educational and CYA campaign in the newspapers. The educational part is good − detailed tables showing the actual cost of using various appliances before and after the adjustments and their comparison to the cost of using a 60 watt light bulb. La ENEE took out a full page ad, directing all consumers with complaints about their bills to go to SEMEH.

While SEMEH reported "statistics" that stated only 0.5% of it's 1,100,000 account holders visit SEMEH offices to complain about overcharges, the Fiscalía in charge of consumer protection says that they are being buried in complaints. A recent La Prensa poll reported that 76% of electric users believe that they have been overcharged in the past months, 48% have seen the need to file a complaint, and 80% believe that neither La ENEE or SEMEH will resolve their problems.

Even La Gringa gets electrocuted by La ENEE

We had our turn at being electrocuted recently. One morning last week, I was awakened from my sick bed by a couple of men calling, "Buenas? Buenas dias?" I panicked when I looked out the upstairs window to see the La ENEE truck. They shouted up to me that our electricity was being turned off because we owed L.2,600 (US $138). I was so confused because that sounded too high to be one month's bill but I was sure I had paid the prior month's bill. They had no details to give me, just orders to cut off the electricity.

I begged them to wait while I paid the bill over the internet but they refused. I said that I had been sick in bed for a week and to please just give me five minutes to check and/or pay the bill and print a receipt for them to see. I was literally almost crying.

No go. Snip!

Luckily, I could use my laptop on battery and the modem was on the battery backup so I was able to access online banking to figure out what the heck happened. It seems that sometime after I paid last month's bill, which incidentally was done only ONE day after the meter was read, SEMEH added a mysterious additional charge of L.390 (about US $20) to our account. The current month bill was dated only THREE days before they cut off our electricity, but because that mystery charge was showing as a prior month balance we were put on the list to be de-electrified!

Not knowing how long my battery backup would last, I hurriedly paid the current month's bill plus the unexplained L.390, saved a copy of the receipt and the prior month's receipt and emailed them to El Jefe, who was in town.

Then I tried to call him on my cell phone, only to be told that I had no minutes available! I fired up the modem and the computer again, praying that the battery would still work and bought a cell card online.

I should also point out that we rarely ever actually receive an electric bill. The meter reader refuses to put the little 2" x 4" thermal paper in our mail box so, if he leaves it all, it must just blow away. In any case, if we don't find it the same day, the sun or rain has obliterated the numbers so that it is useless.

Shortly after I called El Jefe, for some reason I decided to look at the receipt copies I had sent to him. Lucky I did, because both copies were of the original bills, not the paid bills. So once again, I fired up the modem, went to online banking and sent him copies showing that the bills were paid and had no balance due.

What a day! And there I was sick and told to avoid all stress.

El Jefe saves the day

El Jefe printed out the receipts showing that the bills had been paid in full on time and went down to SEMEH and gave them hell. After explaining loudly that we paid our bill last month and that the meter had only been read three days ago and why the *&%# did they cut off our electricity, he also pointed out that, unlike the corruptos who owe tens or hundreds of thousands, we pay our bills on time (CHECK YOUR RECORDS!). Some other people in the office started chiming in with their own similar complaints.

The guy in charge asked if we lived in a residencial or a 'normal' colonia? Well, it happens that we live in a residencial but El Jefe asked what difference that makes? "People who pay their bills shouldn't have their electricity turned off no matter where they live!" The manager agreed and immediately got on the phone with the technicians and told them to go back and reconnect our electricity. El Jefe also told him that we better not have to pay the reconnection fee. The manager said absolutely not.

Both the manager and clerk admitted that there have been many people with the same complaints. They tried to blame it on the bank's system, but I kind of doubt that.

In the end, not only the clerk but the man in charge of the office apologized, as did the "cutter" when he returned to reconnect our electricity later in the afternoon. Unless you live in Honduras, you probably have no idea what an accomplishment that was! Truth and justice do not prevail in Honduras. Especially for the poor who have been trained not to complain and not to question those in authority.

Here is an example of another electrocution by La ENEE, one in which we did not prevail. Once there was some problem with our meter. La ENEE took it away and replaced it with a temporary one. After they reinstalled the meter, the next bill arrived almost twice as high as usual. El Jefe went down to SEMEH to complain and was told that when they replace a meter, they average the prior three months and bill for that amount. Sounds logical, huh?

The only problem was that our prior three months bills were something like L.1,400, L.1,800, and L.1,500 and SEMEH calculated the 'average' as L.2,800. The clerk could not understand why El Jefe was too stupid to understand the averaging concept. Math? Who needs it? If it came from the computer, it must be right. Logic and a little math tutoring got him nowhere with the clerk and that was the end of the discussion − case closed.

Thanks to our quick response, this time our problem was solved the same day and we only went a few hours without electricity. For many people who get the outrageous bills, though, the only choice is to pay or go without electricity. Some have to borrow money to pay their bill. Many have to take off work repeatedly to try to get SEMEH or La ENEE to resolve their problems. La ENEE's policy is that the bill, no matter how outrageous, has to be paid BEFORE they will investigate any error. I'm sure that much, if not most, of the time, no investigation is ever done. Many are simply dismissed by the omnipotent front desk clerk as an invalid complaint, like our queja about the miscalculation of the 3-month average.

More to come

La ENEE is discussing a third increase for next month. To add insult to injury, our power has been out a dozen times in the past week.

San Pedro attorney Jorge Maldonado, who has also received unjust billings for his home and office, claims that the latest adjustment is not in compliance with the law and that it violates the constitution for several reasons, mostly technicalities, including the misprinting of the year of the law (2007 vs. 2008). He has asked the National Congress to annul the adjustment. Both the congress and the supreme court have been reversing government decisions lately, so it is a possibility − though a long shot for sure.

La ENEE was going bankrupt before the latest huge increases in the price of fuel. They need to raise rates, BUT they also need to make all the rich corruptos pay their bills! For just one example, the president of SEMEH was found to be cheating the electric company during Operation Scissors, but he was defended by Honduran President Mel Zelaya.
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