GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. -- Duke Energy is charging a Stokesdale family nearly $7,000, saying the family has been hiding a malfunctioning meter from the utility company for years.
Heidi Kemppel says a normal power bill for her 1700 square foot home is about $120 a month. She says that amount began dropping a few years ago.
"I recall around $60 is when I called [Duke Energy]," Kemppel said. "I said I know we've been conserving electricity, but it was lower, and they said 'No. It's correct.'"
The Kemppels paid the bill, even as it continued dropping. Heidi claims she continued to ask Duke Energy about the shrinking bill, going as far as to ask if someone else was paying it on her behalf, and asking neighbors if they had lower bills as well.
The bill eventually made it down to a scant $10 for one month.
Then in June, the Kemppels received a disturbing letter from Duke Energy. The letter claimed the meter at the house had been malfunctioning for years and the Kemppels knew it was broken. The letter also said the family willfully hid that fact from the utility company.
The letter demanded the Kemppels pay $6,816.42 in back pay for the last three years of undercharging or face having their power cut off in the middle of the summer.
"They're saying we did something illegally wrong," Kemppel said.
The main issue between the two parties is whether or not Heidi Kemppel let anyone know about these low bills. She says she called and asked about it several times as the bill continued to drop in 2008 and 2009. Duke Energy has no record of those calls, but told WGHP its call records only go back three years. Heidi Kemppel cannot remember to whom she spoke to three years ago.
According to Article 9 of the North Carolina Utilities Commission Rules and Regulations, Duke Energy is entitled to only 150 days of back pay if a human or mechanical error occurs and is reported. If the consumer is found to have willfully concealed a malfunctioning meter from the utility, Duke Energy is entitled to three years of back pay.
"This would cripple a family, this kind of bill," Kemppel said.
The Kemppel family has one source of income and six children to take care of. Heidi Kemppel says she has also been battling a chronic blood disease for the last three years.
Kemppel says Duke Energy wants the family to agree to an equal-pay plan, agreeing to pay about $300 a month for the next three years. Heidi says there's no way the family can afford that. More importantly, she says there's no way they should have to.
"I knew my bill was low, but I never even considered checking the kilowatts. I didn't realize that was my responsibility."
Duke Energy told WGHP its meter readers are responsible only for getting a reading and not investigating to see whether or not the reading is correct.
The Kemppels plan to file an official complaint with the NCUC that should keep the lights on while the case is in dispute. Duke Energy had planned to shut the power off on July 9th.
Duke Energy merged with Progress Energy Tuesday, making it the nation's largest power company with seven million customers in six states.