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Utah consumers already have paid Questar Gas most if not all of the approximately $500,000 it is now trying to collect from hundreds of its customers whose meters sent the wrong information about how much natural gas they used.

In trying to back bill its 500 or so customers whose meters were sending the wrong data over the past two years, Questar contends it is only trying to collect what is due so it can be used to help lower rates for all customers in the future.

But Salt Lake City resident Robert Slattery, who Questar wants to back bill for $370, said the whole notion of any customer having to pay for the utility's mistakes and mismanagement is nonsense. "I shouldn't have to pay for their mistakes, nor should anyone else."

Questar started installing transmitters on its gas meters attached to its customer's homes 10 years ago. The transmitters allowed company trucks driving through residential neighborhoods to automatically record each dwelling's natural gas consumption.

Late last year, the company discovered the transmitters on about 500 homes recording only about half of the natural gas that was used. Questar estimated each affected consumer owed an average of $1,200 and set out to bill each one.

Utah consumer advocate Roger Ball said he is concerned that Questar only is acknowledging that some of its transponders were malfunctioning the past two years.

"They now say they started putting transponders on their meters in 1998. And you have to assume that at least some of those [transmitters] also weren't working properly as well," Ball said. "And if that is the case, then Questar has been overbilling most of its customers to make up for the money it didn't collect during that time."

Questar spokesman Chad Jones, however, contends the utility didn't have any problems with its transmitters between 1998 and 2005.

Regardless of the time frame, Questar already has collected the money it claims it is owed through a mechanism known as its "balancing account."

That account tracks the amount the utility spends to supply natural gas to its customers and balances it with the amount of money it collects from them to pay for the fuel.

However, if the price of natural gas rises or the company fails to collect all of what it is owed from its customers, then the balancing account can go into a deficit. The account also can record a surplus if the price of natural gas falls or the company over collects for the natural gas it has supplied.

When either happens, Questar can go to the Utah Public Service Commission and request what is known as a "pass-through" rate adjustment so it can bring the account back into balance. The company typically requests a pass-through rate increase or decrease every six months.

The faulty transmitter settings led the company to undercollect from those 500 customers it is now trying to back bill. As a result, when the company asked for its latest pass-through rate adjustment the requested increase would have been slightly higher than it would have been had the money been collected.

"There is another side to the equation, though," Jones said. "If we are able to collect the money, then we'll be able to adjust the balancing account" downward in the future. And that would mean Questar's customers eventually will pay slightly lower rates that will make up for the higher rates in the past.

Ball though said it is "unjust and unreasonable" for Questar to ask any of its customers to pay for its mistakes.

"If a company underbills a few hundred customers and overbills hundreds of thousands, without realizing what's going on for almost 10 years, that certainly raises the question of whether Questar Gas is being properly managed," he said.

The PSC this week opened an investigation into Questar's faulty meter transmitters and said it was consolidating all of the formal complaints it has received - there have been eight filed to date - into a single docket.

It has asked the state's Division of Public Utilities, which serves as the commission's staff, and the Committee of Consumer Services to conduct the investigation and make recommendations on how to resolve the matter.

"We want the public to know that utilities are not automatically entitled to recover all costs from ratepayers for unjustified mistakes," said Michele Beck, director of the Committee of Consumer Services.

Ball also hopes to get involved in the dispute on behalf of the Utah Ratepayers Association and the consumers his group represents.

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