Broken gas meter leads to huge unpaid bill

UNION — The cost of everything seems to be going up. But for one Elizabethtown Gas Company customer who opened her bill a few months back, it was shocking to see what she owed and how the charges came about.

Like most people, when Gayle Caffarelli opened up her usual monthly bill from Elizabethtown Gas Company earlier this year, she expected to see the usual charge. Instead, she was notified that since 2006 the remote device meter that tallied how much gas was being used at this particular site was flawed. Seriously flawed.

In fact, it was so flawed that Caffarelli was faced with paying a bill that topped $14,000 for back gas usage.
Caffarelli said the story began back in August 2006 when Elizabethtown Gas sent a letter informing her that this commercial property had a gas meter that needed replacing.

“As far as I knew the old meter worked fine, but they said it had to be replaced because it was more than 10-years-old,” Caffarelli explained, admitting she was confused by the need to replace a meter that had not previously caused any problems.

From that point on, life went back to normal. Caffarelli paid the gas bill every month and as far as she knew, everything was fine.
Until this year. Some seven years later, when she received a letter from Elizabethtown Gas Company informing her there was most definitely a problem. One that was going to cost her a lot of money.

“They said there was no way we were using that little gas and they were going to look into things,” she said, adding that a few weeks later she received a letter saying the meter was not programmed right.

“Not programmed right? How is that my fault?” said a bewildered Caffarelli during an interview last week.

She pointed out that if the meter was not programmed right, that had everything to do with Elizabethtown Gas Company and not her.

“They said during those seven years we had been billed the incorrect amount and we actually owed over $14,000,” said the shocked resident whose family has been in business for 101 years in the township. However, there was one saving grace.

“Because we were inconvenienced, they said they would only back bill us $1,860.92,” Caffarelli said, but insisted “they shouldn’t be back billing us anything,”
“First of all this was not our equipment, it was theirs. It never was our responsibility to program the meter, it was theirs. It was not our responsibility to maintain the equipment or train their employee to program the meter correctly, it was theirs,” she said.

The property, owned by her family business, Max. Sr. & Paul Schoenwalder Corporation, a business that was started by her great grandfather, Max Schoenwalder.

Back then the business was across from Stop and Shop, in the old Hudson City Bank building. Her great-grandfather took care of the plumbing, heating and “tinning” needs of residents living in the township when there were only dirt roads in Union.

Although Caffarelli did not know much about the tinning side of the business, other than it was a form of soldering, she did hear stories about what it was like to live in the township during that time.

“Back then if you needed a doctor you hung a lantern on your front porch and someone would stop to see what you needed at the drugstore or to summon the doctor,” explained Caffarelli, the great grand-daughter of Schoenwalder.

A lot has changed since there were dirt roads in Union. The Schoenwalder business moved to Chestnut Street, “tinning” fell by the wayside and was never heard about again, and homes no longer were heated by fireplaces because gas warmed homes. Caffarelli, while grateful for the availability of gas for heating and cooking, still had a problem with a major corporation not taking responsibility for their own equipment.

“If they admitted the remote device was not programmed properly, then why should I be responsible to pay all that money for their mistake?” she asked, pointing out “this is not my problem and I told them that.”

Elizabethtown Gas Company, however, does not agree. In fact, according to company media spokesperson Duane Bourne, the company felt they were being more than generous by only charging Caffarelli $1,860.92.

“We could have charged her $9,300 but we tried to be fair and just in this instance,” said Bourne Monday.
How the company came up with $9,300 appeared to be a mystery, considering Caffarelli was told she would have to pay in excess of $14,000.

After researching the matter, Bourne explained that after the meter was replaced it was years until someone realized Caffarelli was paying far less for gas than what she actually was using.

The culprit, he said, was the remote device that Caffarelli was told had to be replaced in 2006 because it was 10-years-old.
“The AMR device was inaccurate, which resulted in this customer being billed 50 percent less than what she actually used,” Bourne said, pointing out that “the customer used a fair share of gas which amounted to thousands of dollars over the years.”

“We think $1,860.92 is a fair settlement,” the media spokesperson said, noting that Caffarelli actually could have been charged $9,300 under the New York and New Jersey Administrative Code.

“We thought it was fair considering we are only asking her to pay 20 percent of what she should be paying for all the gas she used during that time,” Bourne added. He did say that even though Caffarelli was unhappy with the amount they were asking for, they are working with this customer and intend to keep working with her until an amicable arrangement is agreed upon.

And while Bourne said they believe the $1,860.92 is a “fair and equitable” settlement, Caffarelli disagreed completely.

“It’s not our responsibility that no one checked their employees’ work nor the equipment installed even though Elizabethtown employees have been in our basement numerous times over the last seven years,” she said, adding that “if this was a residential account they would only back bill me for one year, but since it’s commercial they expect us to pay for two years.”

“I wonder how many other people have this problem,” Caffarelli asked, wondering if people just do not talk about these situations.
Asked if this type of situation occurs often, Bourne hesitated and then repeated that Elizabethtown Gas Company felt this was “a fair and just settlement.”