Aldermen take aim at Peoples Gas credit policy

Aldermen are questioning a Peoples Gas policy that leaves customers who pay their bills late with black marks on their credit reports. 

Customers who owe more than $100 and are more than 60 days late on a payment are reported to a credit agency, according to Rod Sierra, spokesman for Integrys Energy Group, Inc., which owns the gas company. That can lead to difficulty getting a mortgage or car loan, especially during the current credit crunch.

Ald. Fredrenna Lyle (D-6) demanded that the company reconsider the policy during a City Council Energy and Environment Committee meeting yesterday.

“This is even more important now, when we’re seeing everyone’s credit is getting tightened because of what’s happened on Wall Street,” said Lyle.

Ald. George Cardenas (D-12) agreed with his colleague.

“Someone could have a bad mark on their credit report for up to seven years, all because of a missed payment of 60 or 100 dollars,” he said.

He added, “I think the fact that ComEd doesn’t report customers’ payments and People’s Gas does, that’s an issue.”

ComEd spokesman Luis Diaz confirmed that the electric utility does not report late-paying customers to credit bureaus.

The policy at Peoples Gas was put into effect within the last 10 years, said Sierra.

He said the policy was necessary because unpaid customer bills sent the company's debt soaring far beyond Interstate Commerce Commission-mandated limits. 

Although the company includes notice of its policy in fine print on the back of monthly bills, as well as on welcome packages and occasional inserts, a number of  aldermen were concerned that people did not learn about the policy until they discovered bad credit reports.

Ald. Manny Flores (D-1) urged Peoples Gas and the city to look into what they could do to heighten awareness of the policy, something he said was “especially urgent” in the current economic climate.

“We will work on seeing what we could do to make customers more aware of it,” said Sierra.

Sierra said that many utilities in the state do report to credit bureaus.

“Look, we want people to stay ahead, to keep their payments regular, so that they don’t fall behind,” said Sierra.  “Our goal is to keep people on, not turn them off.”

However, he added, “if people aren’t paying their bills there’s no way to…run the business on a safe and reliable basis and deliver gas to people on a daily basis.”

Sierra said that financially struggling customers who had arranged for payment plans were not reported as long as they made their reduced payments on schedule.

In September the company also initiated a pilot program that allows struggling customers to pay 60 percent of their bill to avoid disconnection.

Sierra engaged in the exchange with aldermen after a briefing at which he said the company was forecasting that gas prices could rise anywhere from 10 to 15 percent this winter.