Complaint filed against Universal Utilities

Wednesday, February 6, 2008 | 6:40 p.m. CST; updated 7:44 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The Missouri Public Service Commission filed a petition for penalties in the 13th Circuit Court on Jan. 29 against a utility company that the commission says operated in the state without the proper licenses.

According to the commission, Universal Utilities Inc. provided water metering and billing services for Blue Acres and Green Hills mobile home parks in Boone County and several other mobile home parks in the state. The commission is seeking monetary compensation for each day that the company operated without commission approval.

The Public Service Commission staff also says that Universal Utilities is a public utility as defined by state statutes, that it didn’t get the proper licensing and that it didn’t follow rules and procedures, such as the regulation of disconnection and late fees, commission attorney Steve Reed said.

“They should have come here and asked for permission,” Reed said.

Universal Utilities began regulating the water in Blue Acres Mobile Home Park on Jan. 31, 2003, and Green Hills Mobile Home Park on July 8, 2004.

The Public Service Commission reviewed 10 bills of two Blue Acres residents in its complaint and found that none of the bills “measured volume used at a finer degree than 100 gallons, leading staff to conclude that a customer who used 101 gallons in a month would be charged for 200 gallons,” according to the petition.

Large late fees and other unexplained “administrative” fees also showed up on some residents’ bills, according to the commission.

Residents were charged a monthly flat fee of $10.50 plus $5 per every 1,000 gallons used, a monthly service fee of $5.79, a one-time “administrative fee” of $20 for new customers, a $20 collection fee on late payments, re-connection fees and interest on any unpaid balance, according to the complaint.

The state is seeking penalties that range from $100 to $2,000 per day of illegal operation at each mobile home park. Total penalties for the operations at Blue Acres and Green Hills could fall between $304,000 and $6 million.

The court will determine the penalty, which will be paid to the public school fund.

“(The issues) still need to be addressed there to receive and ultimately decide what penalty will be assessed,” commission spokesman Kevin Kelley said.

Mobile home park owners purchased the water from Consolidated Water District 1 for an $80 flat fee plus $5 for every 1,000 gallons used. Universal Utilities paid the owners the amount of their bill and issued separate bills to the residents.

Blue Acres stopped working with Universal Utilities when its contract expired in January, when the city of Columbia began providing water service.

The company must file a response to the commission’s petition by the end of February.

Universal Utilities president Nancy Carol Croasdell did not return phone calls for comment.

According to the Better Business Bureau Web site, 14 complaints have been filed against Universal Utilities in the past 36 months: eight for issues of billing and collection, four for service issues, one for customer service and one for refunds and exchanges.

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