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Wed., Oct. 7
Serving the communities of Massena and Potsdam, New York

Suburban Propane Charges Draw Numerous Complaints


Oxbow property owner Alan B. Tuttle was shocked when a recent bill from Suburban Propane charged him $5.12 per gallon.
"I thought this surely had to be an error so I called them. The first response was that that was the correct amount. Not letting it go, several questions later, I found that they had my privately owned in-ground propane tank listed as company owned," Mr. Tuttle wrote in an email. "I called back and ...amazing ...the price had been changed from $5.12 to $2.88 per gallon."
Mr. Tuttle said he could not get a good explanation for why his bill dropped from $1,925 to $1,085.
"Unfortunately, there are many people out there that just pay their bill without questioning it," he said.
Officials from Suburban, a nationwide company, said Mr. Tuttle's situation was a mistake in which he was put in the wrong usage classification and that a customer service representative overcompensated by dropping the price beyond normal.
"We take these things extremely seriously," said Mark Wienberg, a Suburban vice president. "With regards to Mr. Tuttle's account, we clearly messed up. Mistakes are going to happen. In trying to repair the relationship, we went way too far the other way."
However, claims in a proposed class action lawsuit and the complaints of other former Suburban Propane customers allege Mr. Tuttle's first bill was likely not a mistake.
"When you catch them, they always make it right," said Thomas A. Hagelund, Winthrop, a former customer of Suburban. "You have to confront them and then they agree with you."
Suburban initially charged him $2.30 per gallon but the cost rose to $5 per gallon within a year.
Edward J. Fischer, DeKalb Junction, said he switched to a different supplier after Suburban charged him $5.25 per gallon. He also complained that Suburban twice charged him $32 for a delivery even though his tank was full.
"I never got any propane those times that they came to check on it. I paid that the first time, but the second time I refused and called them and they told me not to pay it," Mr. Fischer said. "My neighbor across is still getting it from Suburban and she doesn't want to change but I asked her what the price was and she didn't know."
A gallon of propane for residential use cost $3.79 per gallon, according to a survey of north country dealers taken Monday by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
Last year, a Minneapolis law firm filed a lawsuit against Suburban alleging the company overcharges customers. In December, a U.S. District Court judge allowed the claim to go forward that "after-the-fact price reductions" might indicate bad faith.
"What it really reflects is that the initial price was inflated and not really the real price," said Kai H. Richter, Nichols Kaster Attorneys. "That's just not a normal way to deal with people. Some people don't notice and pay it. Some people notice it and think they can't do anything. It should be a fair price, fairly calculated the first time."
Most of the lawsuit's other claims are no longer part of the case, said Suburban counsel Steven E. Obus, a partner with Proskauer Rose.
"We're gratified that the court has agreed with us that most of the claims should be dismissed," Mr. Obus said. "The company plans to vigorously defend against the few remaining claims."
Propane, created during processing of other petroleum products, is not regulated in New York so can be priced at whatever the market will bear. Companies do face scrutiny, however.
In 2009, the state Attorney General's office reached a $450,000 agreement with Suburban over its unexpected implementation of a tank rental fee on more than 20,000 customers.
Suburban's competitors also face complaints, Mr. Wienberg said.
"We pick up a lot of customers every year from other suppliers because of customer service," he said. "There's plenty of litigation going on with many of the others."
The Internet is rife with consumer unhappiness about Suburban, Mr. Richter said.
"They seem to have a particularly troublesome history given the volume of complaints and prior regulatory action," he said. "It's fair to say it's been voluminous."

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