GARY | Cherryl Schara is used to tackling her own tasks, whether it be creating a garden or pouring cement for the front porch of her modest home.
But a relentless barrage of bills and notices from electric and gas utility NIPSCO has left the energetic Miller resident exasperated.
"At this point, you guys have me so discombobulated I don't know what I'm doing," Schara said she told the NIPSCO customer service representative who most recently called her about the bills she has been receiving for service to the abandoned home. It has taken her six months to get answers to why she kept getting billed even though her home has been abandoned and empty, awaiting repairs.
The neat front porch glistening with morning rain stands in stark contrast to the rest of the small purple house on South Howard Street in Gary's Miller section. Heavily damaged in a Sept. 7 fire, the home has been boarded up while Schara waits to rebuild.
According to Schara, all the utilities were shut down after the fire, and she notified NIPSCO and the other companies Sept. 10.
Despite the calls, Schara has been receiving a flurry of bills from NIPSCO claiming she owes hundreds of dollars.
A NIPSCO representative said the unwarranted bills were the result of a coding problem and would apologize to the customer, Schara said.
"It was a billing error on our part," NIPSCO spokeswoman Kathleen Szot said.
According to Szot, the meter was incorrectly coded as a meter turned off but not inactive. Szot said a meter can be turned off, but not listed as inactive in cases where it's possible service could be reinstated shortly. In that case, the customer would continue to be assessed a ready-to-serve charge.
Szot said Schara was mailed a new bill last week. Szot said the only bills Schara would receive were charges incurred prior to the fire, or for service protection plan charges, which are provided by an outside company.
Schara said she did receive a phone call of apology from someone and a new bill after she contacted The Times two weeks ago, but she was not satisfied with either one.
The person who called did not identify who Schara could call if she had additional questions, Schara said. In addition, she didn't think the last $72.76 bill she received was correct, either.
Schara said she not only had paid for her prior charges but also had a small credit. As a result, she didn't believe she should have received the latest bill, just as she should not have gotten all the ones she got in the past.
An Oct. 30 gas bill showed Schara had a $1.51 credit balance, but also charged her $15.44 during this period for two service protection plans for heating and water inside the burnt-out home. A Dec. 2 statement showed she had a $30.06 credit.
Szot said last year NIPSCO contracted with an outside firm to provide the service protection plans, although NIPSCO still does the billing. Szot said Schara will have to contact the outside firm regarding those charges. Szot said NIPSCO told this to Schara at one point, but will tell her again in a follow-up call. She said NIPSCO will provide any verification she needs to resolve the issue with those charges.
However, Schara said she called the outside firm months ago, and was told that company would consider waiving the fees if she were able to provide verification from NIPSCO that her service was disconnected because of a fire. She said when she called NIPSCO at the time, she was told NIPSCO does not provide such information to outside firms.
On Dec. 30, Schara received a gas bill for $708.21, which included a $616.12 charge for gas service during the past month at the boarded-up home. A month later, her bill was adjusted again, but still had her owing $157.45.
A late February statement had her owing a past due amount of $130.99 — and threatened to disconnect service by March 13.
Then she got four separate bills in early March that listed different charges for the same location. One bill said she owed $84.53, another $73.25, a third $72.76, and a fourth $62.72.
"They can't make up their mind what I owe," she said.
Szot notes Schara has more than one account, but the four bills Schara received all had the same account number and listed the same service address of 311 S. Howard St. Szot stressed that people should contact NIPSCO directly with any questions or concerns they have with their bills, so representatives can understand and address the issues.
Schara said the fire destroyed most of her possessions Sept. 7; some items she was able to salvage and put in a nearby garage, but they later were stolen.
"I lost everything I owned," Schara said.
She said her insurance company has been good, but she can't replace the keepsakes she lost. Still despite the problems, Schara hopes to rebuild in the neighborhood once she is able to free herself from the entanglements that have been complicating her life.
"I love this area," she said.