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Non-visiting days for gas purchasers in Zakarpattia

05 September 2018Ні корупції

To come to a gas distribution company and find a lunch break there, or even a non-visiting day; to get into the customer service halls and not to find a place to sit in a queue; to clarify a bill for consumed gas and not to be able to immediately settle them - such situations are possible for gas consumers in towns of Zakarpattia.

Non-visiting days for gas purchasers in Zakarpattia

As a good exception, there are customer service centers (CSCs) in cities of Uzhhorod and Mukachevo. Actually, against the background of their work, there is a big difference between the process of receiving customers of the monopolist of PJSC Zakarpatgaz in two towns of the region and the rest of the district centers.

Premises of gas companies – сould use a repair

Often or rarely, and yet, anyone planning or already using gas in their everyday life has to go to a gas distribution or gas supply company. Residents of the westernmost region of the country, on the issue of functioning of the gas system deal with the natural monopolist - PJSC Zakarpatgaz, and on the issues of direct purchase of fuel through the circumstances prevailing in the country - with LLC Zakarpatgaz Zbut. As reported on the website of the latter, more than 270 thousand household consumers are their customers today.

"Owning or using a building and/or premises in which the reception and service of consumers is organized" is one of the many requirements of the state license for work in the gas distribution market, which is owned by PJSC Zakarpatgaz. Today, some premises of the gas-companies built during the Soviet period could use repair both from the outside and inside. What is striking is that in the district centers, there are still old tables placed at the time when the gas company was not a member of RGC (Regional Gas Company) Group. There are symbols of the latter only on information stands.

Both PJSC Zakarpatgaz, and LLC Zakarpatgaz Zbut belonging to it work at the same premises, so regardless of the fact to what company a consumer goes, the picture is the same. For example, in the village of Mizhhiria, the customer, entering the building, will see a corridor with old repairs and four wooden chairs – that’s where he will have to wait if there is a queue at the reception.

There is also no hall for customers here - they are received by officers in their offices. According to them, this is enough, given that only 4 villages and a settlement use blue fuel in the mountainous area. They say that there are large queues only in the days when consumers come to report on readings of meters.

In other district centers of the gas distributing company of the region (except Uzhhorod and Mukachevo), consumer service halls are slightly larger, somewhere with better interior, somewhere with worse one, however, everywhere officers of the consumer service admit that repair was made a very long time ago.

The common feature is that three-five officers receive consumers at the same time everywhere, there is a lunch break; there is information for consumers on the news board. In the halls, as a rule, there are sample applications and corresponding forms. There is no e-queue anywhere. The number of armchairs for those who want to sit in the hall is different. The least number is, for example, in the town of Irshava - only one.

But in Irshava, as in Khust, there is ATM, which is convenient for a customer to pay for the services at once.

Settle the bills and sit down. ATM and wooden armchairs at the entrance to the office of the gas distribution company in the town of Khust. Photo by the author

The author recorded no ATMs in the rest of offices of Zakarpatgaz (except new ones in Uzhhorod and Mukachevo). In addition, there is the so-called “non-visiting day” in the middle of the week in all customer service halls except for Uzhhorod and Mukachevo. This causes additional inconvenience for the customer. Thus, a consumer has only 4 days a week to get to the reception.

Typical working hours of the customer service in district centers of Zakarpattia. According to it, customers are received in the town of Svaliava. Photo by the author

Most of the premises in the district where gas workers work are not suitable for wheelchairs or customers with prams. There is a ramp at the entrance to the buildings of the gas distribution company in the village of Mizhhiria and the town of Tiachiv. However, their quality is far from being perfect.

In Irshava, at the entrance to the building, a call button was set up for people with disabilities, however, when the author pressed it, there was no response to the call.

There is a call button in front of the stairs to the office in Irshava. But it was not working at the moment of visit. Photo by the author

As for the reception of customers of LLC Zakarpatgaz Zbut selling gas to the population, most offices work with consumers not in consumer service halls, but in office rooms. In the towns of Khust, Irshava and Tiachiv, these rooms are located on the second floor, making access to them very limited for people with disabilities.

The work of the third CSC in the region is planned to be launched

The level of service at the Customer Service Centers, which has relatively recently started working in Uzhhorod, and later in Mukachevo, is considerably more qualitative, comfortable and even pleasant to a consumer.

Premises for customers being gas consumers in Makachevo. Photo by the author

What will the consumer see when he enters the premises of CSC? A queue management system, comfortable waiting chairs; more than 5 workplaces, where a consumer will received, when his reception number will be shown on a queue management system display. Newly repaired halls, there is enough lighting inside, everything is visually clear. In the customer service hall in Uzhhorod, there is also a small children’s location, so that the younger customers are not bored. The entrances are equipped with fully equipped ramps. Unlike customer service halls in the districts, the CSCs work without a lunch break and without a “non-visiting day”.

Regarding online work, in the customer halls, there is an access to gas customer accounts, as well as ATM, which allows immediate payment for the services rendered.

“The customer service centers provide approximately 40 services. Most of the issues, on which customers are applying, refer to gas metering, gas meter readings, personal account clarifications, giving explanation and advice on benefits and subsidies, printing bills for payment for consumed gas, and on issues of connecting and reconstructing the gas network. During the first year of work, the Customer Service Center in Uzhhorod has provided 118,000 services to natural gas consumers,” Yurii Lomakin, Public and Media Relations Specialist at PJSC Zakarpatgaz says. Thus, gradually “customer services” with long queues should remain in the past.”

According to the speaker of Zakarpatgaz, this year the opening of the third CSC in the town of Khust is scheduled in the region. Currently, as the author made sure, there is a customer service hall, which still needs to be searched, wandering through the corridor of the premises.

In the long run, according to the gas company, CSC will be opened in the town of Vynohradiv. They also consider the concept of opening a mobile Service Center that will provide services to customers in remote districts of the region. However, they do not made public the specific terms, complain about the lack of money.

This is how the customer service hall in the town of Vynohradiv, where the fourth CSC in the region may be opened in perspective, looks like. Photo by the author

“Today, through the absence of funds, it is too early to talk about specific terms, but gradually we are going to re-equip all points of contact with customers,” Yurii Lomakin said. He emphasizes that, in the current tariff for gas distribution, there is no money for the costs associated with the formation of customer centers. “To open CSCs, the company only attracts its own, not tariff funds,” the specialist says. “This income is limited, because paid services, leasing of property, performing gas supply works are not the main activity of the company. The limited financial resources restrains the introduction of new CSCs”.

Speaking about the source of money for the creation and operation of customer centers, the expert of DiXi Group Think Tank Roman Nitsovych says: for the supply companies (gazzbuts - Aut.), these costs are part of the margin which is regulated for the population and for the competitive part of the market – is determined by market factors. For gas distribution companies (oblgazes - Aut.), this is a component of the tariff approved, in particular among staff costs, “other costs” item and, in some cases, capital expenditures, for example, the purchase of machinery.

Director of LLC Zakarpatgaz Zbut Viktoriia Tomynets, in the commentary to the author, noted that the company will process the issue of arrangement of facilities suitable for persons with disabilities and will take into account this when forming the financial budget for 2019. At the same time, the manager stresses that the sales margin for the seller, determined by the Cabinet of Ministers, does not exceed 2.5%, which, together with such factors as the availability of systematic debts of domestic consumers for natural gas, as well as state budget debts to the service provider, delays the implementation of such projects. By the way, at the beginning of July, residents of Zakarpattia owed 939 million and more for the gas used.

Viktoriia Tomynets also noted that the company is investing in the development of remote services, which significantly minimizes the need for customers to apply directly to a point of contact. “In each gasified district of the region, there are points of contact, where, in case of necessity, the consumer is able to contact and receive detailed information within the limits of the authority and competence of LLC Zakarpatgaz Zbut,” Viktoriia Tomynets informs. - In addition, in the Customer Service Centers, the consumer has the opportunity to receive both current information on current debts and accounts, as well as to perform payment reconciliation.” According to the head of Zakarpatgaz Zbut, if a customer does not clear up his issue in the context of gas sales in CSC, then he applies directly to a specialist from a gas supply company. They also say in Zakarpattia gazzbut about a significant nuance, which contributed to a decrease in the number of customers at access points. Recently, with amendments to regulatory legal acts, the recipients of subsidies do not have to personally go to a gas supply company for certificates - this is the most important reason for consumer appeals to access points. Currently, the data exchange is carried out between service providers and social security departments in an automated electronic form and does not require consumers to apply for certificates for granting subsidies to a gas supply company.

Online services and client centers – license requirement

Roman Nitsovych, an energy expert, draws attention to the fact that equipping customer service centers for gas consumers is a requirement of licensing conditions that has to be fulfilled both by gas distribution and gas supply companies. According to an independent expert, this is the standard of doing business to a lesser extent, since not the competition, but the control measures by the Regulator – the NEPURC give a push to the compliance with these requirements.

Among the other requirements, in the licensing conditions for conducting commercial activities for the distribution of natural gas (license is held by oblgazes, in particular Zakarpatgaz – Aut.), among other requirements, the question is about the operation of the call center for customer service with the multichannel number of fixed and mobile telephones, the availability of a single electronic mailbox for reception of messages to the call center. It is worth noting that on the website of Zakarpatgaz, in the section about the contact center, a mobile phone number is not specified.

Only fixed telephone number is indicated on the website of the Zakarpattia gas distribution company. Screen shot from website

At the same time, there is a mobile number; it can be found, for example, in the corridors of the offices of the company.

The contact center mobile number is indicated in the corridors

In accordance with the license requirements, the gas distribution operator should ensure the proper functioning and maintenance of a personal website on the Internet and ensure the proper organization and operation of the consumer’s personal account on the Internet. Zakarpatgaz has no problems with this – both the website and the consumer’s personal account function.

By the way, the requirement for the availability of a customer’s personal account also exists in licensed conditions to a gas supply company, which, as already mentioned, is Zakarpatgaz Zbut in the most westernized area.

As provided for in license terms, “In case of the conclusion of a contract for the supply of natural gas to the domestic consumer, to ensure the availability of a consumer’s personal account on its own website, which should contain personalized consumer data, statistics on prices and accruals, and payment under the contract for the supply of natural gas, and other information, related with the execution of the said agreement.” Interesting detail: Zakarpattia household consumers use their personal accounts not on the website of the regional gazzbut, but on the website, which unites the regional gas distribution companies of RGC Group.

On the website of Zakarpatgaz Zbut, it is proposed to create a personal account on platform. Screen shot from the website of Zakarpatgaz Zbut

At first glance, it looks like a deviation from the license terms and the Compliance Program, according to which companies that distribute gas in the networks and the companies that sell it must be separated and have nothing common. However, since the Regulator did not make public claims as to this fact, there was no reason to assert the violation of the license conditions and the Compliance Program. The test in 2017 documented that Zakarpatgaz did not violate the conditions of the Compliance Program.

“Indeed, platform combines both distribution and distribution companies working under RGC brand, Roman Nitsovych points out. “However, in order to find out if there are violations of the Compliance Program, it is necessary to understand whether billing systems of DSO and gazzbut are integrated, or simply they use one web platform conditionally independently of each other. In addition, DSO must know the amount of gas that goes to the consumer to deliver it through distribution networks; but the commercial data between the supplier and the consumer (price, payments, debts/overpayments) is the information that the network operator should not see.”

The following question is urgent for consumers: if in the country, the market rules of gas trading will start to work (when the customer himself will be able to choose a gas seller in the same way as he chooses a mobile operator), will it be necessary to register two electronic accounts and, accordingly, to enter readings of consumed gas twice - for oblgaz and its operator?

Roman Nitsovych explains that in accordance with the current rules of supply, there must be separate contracts for the distribution and supply of gas, respectively - and separate accounts. But it is not forbidden if the supplier himself enters into an agreement with DSO and signs a supply agreement with the consumer. Then, the consumer will only deal with the supplier.

Office of the gas company in the town of Svaliava. Photo by the author

This is how it is today: the population is the customer of a unified gazzbut (as a rule, each region or town has its own gazzbut) and receives bills from it. However, it should be recalled that the idea of ​​introducing customer charge for gas in the country was that consumers pay separately for the distribution of gas, and separately for its actual consumption, because these two services are provided to us by two different companies. Would it be expedient to differentiate payment document in two parts for domestic consumers - payment for purchased gas and payment for its distribution by networks? “Yes, it is expedient, even if the price itself and its components are regulated,” Roman Nitsovych says. “At least, it will prepare consumers for the transition to market relations in the future.”

It should be recalled that as of July, 2.2 % of 1 cube purchased by domestic gas consumers was received by Zakarpatgaz Zbut as a supplier and 12.2% were transferred to Zakarpatgaz as a payment for the distribution of fuel by networks.

As for other requirements to gas sellers - the availability of a website, the creation of points of contact (i.e., places of reception of customers - Aut.) with the ability to register an application – no significant deviations were revealed by the author. On the website of Zakarpatgaz Zbut, as required by the license, there are rules for supplying natural gas, information on fuel prices, dispute resolution procedure and contact information. At the same time, the author could not find samples of typical contracts for the supply of natural gas on the website.

And although today the online service is becoming more and more popular - how to enter the readings of the gas consumed, and pay for it (as of July 1, 65 thousand consumers from Zakarpattia are registered on platform), customers should remember: at their discretion, the seller is obliged to provide a paper subscription book in which the consumer may personally enter the actual number of consumed cubes and pay them through the cash desk. Customers may have such desire, for example, since suppliers have begun to include in bills the so-called recommended fee - an advance payment for the gas not used yet. The author was informed by Zakarpatgaz Zbut that last year payment books were issued to 12 thousand customers.

There is also a financial requirement in licensing conditions for gas distribution and gas supply companies – on a quarterly basis, to pay contributions for regulation determined by the state regulator NEPURC (National Energy and Public Utilities Regulatory Commission). These requirements are fulfilled: in particular, as reported by the NEPURC, for the first quarter of this year, PJSC Zakarpatgaz paid a contribution for regulation in the amount of almost UAH 78 thousand, and LLC Zakarpatgaz Zbut - UAH 618 thousand.

Ask a gas company whether the fuel is of good quality

Since recently, there are clear rules for gas supply in Ukraine, in particular – the Minimum Standards of Requirements to consumer service quality and supply of natural gas. In case of violations, a consumer may count on compensation. True, a customer will not receive ready cash, and it will be credited in advance for the services provided.

In accordance with the Minimum Standards (paragraph 2.2, sub-paragraph 6), the consumer may, among other things, request information on gas quality. At the consumer’s written request, the gas distributing company must check the pressure level and/or qualitative gas readings. DSO also must, within 5 working days after receipt of a written application, provide the consumer with documents on physical and chemical indicators of gas. “For the 4th quarter of the last year, PJSC Zakarpatgaz received five appeals concerning physical and chemical indicators of natural gas. In the first quarter of the current year - no appeal was received”, the speaker of Zakarpatgaz Yurii Lomakin told about the situation. “It should be noted that information on the numerical values ​​of physical and chemical indicators of natural gas transmitted by gas transport (gas producing) enterprises to gas distribution networks of PJSC Zakarpatgaz is always available on the company’s website. This information is updated and is available to all customers by the breakdown for each day of the month. In addition, in this table, our customers can see not only the physical and chemical composition of natural gas, but also the weighted average higher heat of combustion in energy units.”

In general, to what a consumer has the right and, most importantly, in what terms the service should be provided in accordance with the Minimum Standards, - is made public in detail on the website of Zakarpatgaz. Oblgazes, according to the rules, must publish, by 1 March each year, a report on the compliance with the Minimum Standards and information on the amount compensated to consumers for violating these standards. On the website of Zakarpatgaz, we managed to find a report on compliance with the Minimum Quality Standards, but these data are not placed on the prominent place of the main page, but in the archive of notices of To Attention of Customers section. Thus, to find a document, it is necessary to get to the date of February 8, 2018 in the news bulletin.

According to the report, Zakarpatgaz did not violate the minimum requirements last year, and therefore - did not pay compensation to its customers. It is evident that the report was submitted not for the entire period of 2017, but only for the last quarter. This fact was explained in the gas distribution company by the fact that the NEPURC Resolution No. 1156, which regulates the issue, came into force in October 2017, accordingly, the information is provided only for the 4th quarter. The information on the implementation of minimum quality standards for the first two quarters of this year was not found by the author on the website of PJSC Zakarpatgaz.

Consumers are complaining not about the service - there are misunderstandings concerning meters

Once every three years, oblgazes undergo a scheduled inspection of the compliance with the license conditions by the Regulator – the NEPURC. As for Zakarpatgaz, last time, such inspection was held in 2017 for the period 2015-2016. Among other things, inspectors control over placing the information necessary for the consumer in the media, on official sites, on bulletin boards. As is known from the results of the inspection of Zakarpattia gas distribution company by the Commission (page 54), within the period 2015-2016, no violations concerning consumer information have been recorded. The next scheduled inspection of the compliance with the license conditions by Zakarpatgaz will take place in 2019.

9 appeals as to the work of PJSC Zakarpatgaz, and 2 appeals – as to LLC Zakarpatgaz Zbut were received by the Department of the State Committee for Food Safety and Consumer Protection. Since the beginning of 2018 and till May 1, 5 appeals as to Zakarpatgaz, and one appeal as to Zakarpatgaz Zbut have been registered.

However, they did not relate to complaints about the work of online services or the conditions for receiving customers in customer service halls and CSCs. “In most of the appeals of consumers in the region regarding violation of their rights by PJSC Zakarpatgaz, the questions concerned the installation of gas meters at their own expense when replacing an inappropriate meter based on the results of the inspection,” Anatolii Ryzhykov, Head of the Consumer Protection Department of the State Committee for Food Safety and Consumer Protection in the region, explained to the author. He recalls that, in accordance with the Code of Gas Distribution Systems, in case of non-compliance of gas meters of domestic consumers with regulatory documents in the field of metrology, and provided that there was no interference in the operation of the meters, DSO - that is, oblgaz - is obliged, within 15 working days after the results of the inspection and, no later than two months after the gas meter has been removed for periodic check, to install own calculation meter free of charge.

“Having the right, but being ignorant, consumers did not use it and bought a gas meter at their own expense,” Anatolii Ryzhykov points out. “In addition, the complaining consumers did not submit to the complaints the documentary confirmation of the obligations by the operator, that is - PJSC Zakarpatgaz - to buy gas meters at their own expense.” In order to avoid such incidents, the head of the Consumer Protection Department advises customers of oblgaz in the event that someone claims money from them for the meter in exchange for unserviceable one, first of all, to require a written certificate of such necessity. Anatolii Ryzhykov notes: after such a requirement, DSO will execute the law by no means and install the meter at its own expense, as provided for by the Code of Gas Distribution Systems.

The consumer’s appeals, as we already know, should be also registered in CSCs, customer service halls, and in access points of gazzbuts. Actually we, as consumers, in the form of an appeal, may demand the answer to all questions that interest us from both the gas distribution and gas supply company. And, in particular, the information about paid services with a clear reference to the relevant provisions in the laws and regulations.

Author: Yaroslav Hulan

Source: “No to Corruption”

The investigation was conducted within the framework of the USAID Transparent Energy project. The position of the author may not coincide with the position of the US Agency for International Development and DiXi Group Think Tank

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