Small Victories

October 2, 2008

So I sent my complaint letter to Tallahassee Utilities.  I sent it certified mail because that’s what the complaint letter experts tell you to do (oh I miss the Bryant Park Project.)  Something about really meaning business, you know?  I addressed it to “Customer Service Manager.”

Well yesterday I got a call from the front desk woman who I talked to when I was in the last time.  She was very apologetic and said that it was a busy time, that she can’t believe that she did not tell me about the charges, that it didn’t matter if I had good credit or not that everyone would get that charge.  Then she asked me if there was anything that she could do.  Wait is that a trick question?  I said that if she couldn’t remove the charge then not really.  Then she asked if I wanted her to speak with her supervisor and see what could be done.  Wait is that a trick question?  I said yes I would like that.

Then she called me back later and left a message saying she’d taken care of it and the charge had been removed from my bill.  Woohoo.  I wrote her a little thank you note.

So then I was watching the local news and heard the announcement that Tallhassee Utilities is raising rates eight percent across the board.  Um I guess they’ll be getting my 56 dollars after all.

To Tallahassee Utilities,

I am writing to protest the 56 dollars of connection fees that I am being charged on my utility account that I have had connected with no interruptions for over three years.

Let me take time to explain the situation.  When I moved to Tallahassee four years ago my father was kind enough to activate my utilities in his name and social security number so that the deposit would be waved due to his good credit with his utility company.  But since that day I have received and paid the utility bills with my own money.

Three years ago I moved across town to a new house.  At that point I decided it would be logical to change the name on the account from my father’s to my name.  I called and inquired and was told that I would have to pay a deposit (approximately $250) in order to do that.  That of course was unsatisfactory to me.   So I asked about what would be done if someone had died or gotten a divorce or sublet a house and needed to change a name on an account.  The customer service representative told me that I could add my name to the account and then after two years of good history I could remove my father’s name from the account.  To do this we had to both (my father who lives out of town and I) appear in person at the Renaissance Center.  So we did that and in June of 2005 my name and social security number were added to the account so that in two years I could remove my father’s name.

Earlier this month I happened to be in the Renaissance Center to meet with Gwen Lightfoot about affordable housing issues on behalf of Tallahassee Equality Action Ministry.  I remembered that it had been plenty of time now and I was in the building I could stop by the Customer Service desk and remove my father’s name from my account.   I got to the front of the line and told the representative what I wanted to do I was first told that had to pay a deposit.  But I explained that I had been on the account for over two years had been told that I could now just remove his name outright.  She looked up my account and told me that was okay and she had me fill out a form and show my ID.  I asked “So now my father is off my account?” and was told yes.  At no time during this meeting or during any of the other conversations and meetings three years ago was I told that there would be any charge if I followed the procedure proscribed.  So that is what I did.

Three days ago I received a bill in my name that included 56 dollars combined of “connection fees” for gas, water, and electricity.  Since my utilities had never been disconnected and I was not expecting any charges I called the customer service line and spoke to a representative.  I asked about the charges and she said, “it says that you had one account that was closed and another that was opened.”  So I explained the situation to her and the steps that I had taken.  She then told me that the way I had handled the situation forced them to send a meter reader to my house and that is what the fees were for and that I was lucky because I only had to pay 56 dollars instead of the $250 deposit.

There are two major problems I have with this.  One, I was never told that I would be charged anything.  The bill I received was the first indication. Had I been told about the charges I would not have done it this way.  And second a deposit would be potentially refundable; where as these “connection fees” I will never see again.  And again, nothing was ever disconnected.

I have over four years of good history with Tallahassee Utilities, three of which are under my own name.  I feel like I am being taken advantage of by an unfair and unclear policy that now I see little way out of.   I hope that I will receive satisfaction by getting a bill that reflects the removal of these unfair fees.

Thank you,
Erin K. Thompson

There was recently an article in Slate magazine about franchising churches. It’s caused a lot of controversy over the wisdom of having figurehead pastors and huge churches. I’ve been reading stuff from mega church pastors and attenders as well as some people who have problems with any sort of “formalized, in a building, with paid staff” kind of church. It really makes me think. And when I do comment I usually do some defending of formalized structure provided by denominations (like offering national connection, providing things like health insurance to pastors and legal counsel to congregations) and medium size congregations (offering diversity of relationships as well as opportunities for small groups with like interests.) Anybody want to take a guess about what type of church I attend?

But here’s what I think it comes down to… the how is not nearly as important as the what. I think there’s much more consensus on what a healthy church should be achieving (members who display the fruits of the spirit, sacrificial giving, authentic worship) than the specifics on how it gets there. Because frankly there are a million ways and you know if somebody had it down perfect, heck I’d be there, but imperfect people form imperfect churches. So what to do? How do we get better?

Do you know how they train dolphins to do all those cool flips and stuff? It’s a conditioning technique called “shaping” or “reward for successive approximation.” The dolphin would not just do a flip all on it’s own one day you have to teach it how. So the first day the goal is to get the dolphin to touch its nose to the end of a stick. The trainer has a ton of treats and whenever the dolphin comes over the trainer puts out the stick and gives the dolphin a treat (probably some slimy fish eww.) Dolphin now thinks stick=treat… we are on the right track here. So now the dolphin swims over and the trainer touches the stick to the dolphin’s nose, he get a treat… great pretty soon he’ll be touching stick on his own (got to have that slimy fish.) Goal one down. But the next day the trainer mixes it up a bit and has the stick out of the water so the dolphin has to raise up a little to get the treat. And no more rewarding for touches in the water. Slowly the trainer will add harder elements of the behavior (like actually flipping) and remove excess things (like the stick) until they have the desired result. Now different trainers might have different techniques, some use a red stick some use blue, some use sardines, others use guppies. But what do they have in common? Patience and evaluation.

It takes a long time and many tries to get what you really want, sometimes you fall short. And evaluation, the trainer has to look at what the dolphin did and say treat or no treat, close enough or way off. Are we moving toward our goal (the “what”) or not? I think we miss that piece in churches too often. We look and look for the perfect “how” and neglect the “what.”

I was recently on a young adult retreat and the leader wanted us to discuss while we were all there and captive, whether we wanted to start meeting in our small group every week instead of just every other week. We had opinions on both sides and kept going back and forth each making valid points. Until someone said “why don’t we just try it for a few months, and if it doesn’t work we can always go back.” Eureka. Try something new and make an evaluation. Are we moving toward our goal or not?

One big but… for this to work you have to be willing to change, to go back and to move forward. There’s no way around that fact. No matter who fights you on it. Bold chances and honest evaluation have to become part of the ethos of all ministry. We have to be willing to be shaped.