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When Questar discovered that its meters had been underbilling about 500 customers by half for their natural gas, it sent them a notice to pay, on average, $1,200 in back charges. Predictably, the customers exploded.

Now the company has backed off, and the Public Service Commission will have to sort out the mess.

We don't see why the customers should be penalized for the company's error. But we also don't believe it is right for the customers to get away with not paying for gas they used. It is reasonable to assume that many customers would suspect they were being underbilled if they were being charged for only half the gas they used.

Apparently, the gas utility has recouped its roughly $600,000 loss by charging all its customers slightly more through a "balancing account." If the income from its customers falls short of the cost of the gas it provides, the utility can apply to the PSC to adjust its rates upward to make up the difference.

However, the company contends that if it recovers the back charges from the customers who actually used the gas, it can adjust the "balancing account" to reduce slightly the rates charged to everyone else. That way, everything comes out even.

We see the company's point, but under that scenario Questar is the only one in the whole transaction who is held harmless. That's not right, because the company caused the errors in the first place.

So how about this: The company should be allowed to recover half of its back charges from the customers with the faulty meters, who should be given 24 months to make the back payments in installments. The company contends that utilities rules allow it to recover underbilling for a period that goes back two years. OK. In fairness, the customers should be allowed the same period going forward to make the back payments.

The company should be required to eat the other half of the shortfall. That way it pays a penalty for its own mistake. It should not be allowed to lay that cost off on other customers.

This compromise, or something like it, sounds equitable. We don't know whether state utilities laws would allow such an arrangement. That's for the PSC to decide.

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