Mary Nielsen was angry. Not only had Pacific Gas & Electric
overcharged the then-87-year-old Oakland resident $800, but in
examining the bill, she also found hidden charges on the back.
One month later, in October 2004, Nielsen got PG&E to
refund her money. One year later, after she dispatched phone calls and
letters to PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission and
state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, the Gas Public Purpose Program
charges began to appear on the front of the bill.
"Like everyone else, I never examined my bill," said Nielsen,
91, as she bustled about the kitchen of her Oakland hills home, making
coffee and serving homemade blueberry muffins. "But when I got a $1,000
bill from PG&E, I started to look more closely."
She discovered the Gas Public Purpose surcharge. All PG&E
gas customers’ bills include the charge, which funds state-mandated
gas-assistance programs for low-income customers, energy-efficiency
programs and public-interest research and development.
"It pays for low-cost services to people who can’t afford to
pay the full bill, which we wouldn’t quarrel with," Nielsen said. What
bothered her was that the charges were hidden.
"I felt people needed to know what they are paying for, that in addition to the city tax there were other taxes," she said.
At first, Nielsen called PG&E to ask what the charges were for.
"The clerk not only told me she wasn’t able to give me the
information, but asked why I wanted to know. It went downhill from
there," the self-described "scrapper" said as she set the blueberry
muffins on a white tablecloth printed with red cherries, moving about
the kitchen with the occasional aid of a walker.
After a heated conversation, Nielsen fired off phone calls and letters to PG&E, the PUC and, eventually, Perata’s office.
Persistence and determination have characterized Nielsen’s life
ever since she first walked into a Kansas classroom in 1921, the
non-English-speaking daughter of Czechoslovakian immigrants.
"We were not allowed to speak our native language in class,"
said Nielsen, whose maiden name is Horacek. "We had to speak English,
otherwise you couldn’t talk. Surprisingly, I learned very well."
The family moved to California when Nielsen was 10 years old, first coming to Benicia, then settling for good in Oakland.
"I’ve lived in Oakland 80 years," Nielsen said. She graduated
from Castlemont High School in 1934 — during the depths of the Great
Depression and the worst possible time to look for a job.
Typically, Nielsen wasn’t discouraged. She persisted in the
hunt and a year later found a job at Montgomery Ward. She started as a
clerk "and just kept on working," marrying and raising a family while
rising to the position of administrative assistant at Montgomery Ward.
Working to get the tax on the front of the bill was an equally demanding challenge.
"We got a lot of verbal resistance. We never received any
replies to any of our communications," Nielsen said. It wasn’t until
she and the Neighborhood Study Group, an organization she created to
pursue the issue, contacted Perata’s office that she got any results.
After working with Todd Hannon, district representative in
Perata’s Oakland office, the group got the facts it had been looking
for: information on how the surcharge came about, how much money was
collected and its purpose. A few months later, Nielsen opened her bill
and, lo and behold, the Gas Public Purpose charges were displayed on
"Sometimes when the Senate president starts inquiring, that
gets some action," said Richard Holober, executive director of the San
Mateo-based Consumer Federation of California.
Coincidentally, Holober’s group is protesting a recent action
related to the Gas Public Purpose charge. Along with California’s other
two major public utilities, PG&E applied to the PUC to reduce
contributions by large businesses to the surcharge, reallocating the
costs to small customers.
Other consumer groups, including The Utility Reform Network,
are participating in the protest, saying the proposal could increase
residential customers’ bills collectively by as much as $100 million a
discounting rates for big businesses.
"That is a new wrinkle that needs to be looked at even more,"
Nielsen said. "I think it should be fair across the board. The
businesses themselves benefit from the program — for instance, those
that sell appliances. If their PG&E bill includes that charge, they
should pay it in full at the same rate we (residential customers) do."
David Eisenhauer, PG&E spokesman, said: "What TURN fails to
mention is that under the current allocation plan, large businesses are
paying a disproportionate amount of the costs for these programs — in
some cases more than half of their gas bills go to the programs in
"We believe this has a negative impact on the business
environment in California. We agree everyone should pay their fair
share, and the proposed allocation plan does so while having a minimal
impact, about 23 cents a month, on residential customers," Eisenhauer
A consumer advocate applauded Nielsen’s efforts.
"It’s great to have citizens who have the fortitude and
concentration and resilience to do this kind of thing," said Judy
Dugan, research director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer
Rights. "People, especially elderly people, are inundated with these
tiny-type regulations from companies of all kinds. She (Nielsen) has
done a service, not just for other elderly people, but for all of us."
"Mary’s a fighter," said Agnes Cooney of Oakland, an active member of the study group Nielsen formed in 2004.
"I commend her for her drive," Cooney said.
"When I saw those PPP charges on the front of the bill, that was
a great moment for me," Nielsen said. "It proved that the individual
has power, and if you use that power, you can create a change. I hope
this would encourage people who think, ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing I can
do.’ All you have to do is raise your voice, and you can effect change."
Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671 or [email protected] — Check out her Energy Blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/energy
NAME: Mary Nielsen
OCCUPATION: Retired. Worked as an administrative assistant at
Montgomery Ward in Oakland and consultant at UC Shipping &
Household in Oakland.
RESIDENCE: Oakland, CA
FAMILY: She is the widow of Walter Nielsen and has two sons, Bruce
Nielsen and Dennis Fowler, who is her son from a previous marriage.
ACHIEVEMENTS: "I got PG&E to move a hidden surcharge from the back of the bill to the front."
For more information on PG&E’s Public Purpose Programs, visit: www.pge.com/res/understanding_bill/standard/page4.html