Based on a recent project, local electrician Craig Willett complains that Verizon charges inflated prices for running phone lines through underground conduit. Mr. Willett said those charges may hinder completion of similar projects on Martha’s Vineyard or make some economically unfeasible.
On July 31, he filed a consumer complaint with the Office of the Attorney General Public Inquiry and Assistance Center, accusing Verizon of price-gouging for installing underground phone lines, in the absence of alternative providers.
Mr. Willett, an Edgartown resident for 35 years, worked for a Vineyard electrical company for 20 years. He has been in business on his own as a licensed electrician for a year. The project that prompted his complaint involved putting utility wire, phone and cable lines in underground conduit at a private residence on Hvoslef Way in Tisbury.
Unlike other projects where utility poles are removed and wires put underground to improve someone’s view, in this case it was a case of necessity, Mr. Willett said. The overhead wires hung over the middle of a vacant lot where the property owner wanted to build a new house.
He arranged to have 200 feet of trenching done and installation of separate conduit for NSTAR wires, and phone and cable lines.
“Verizon didn’t even have to trench or install conduit, because I had already done that,” Mr. Willett said. “I included that in my contract price for the customer, to put underground conduit in the ground, with strings in them, all ready to pull the wire through.”
He expected to pay Verizon $800 to $2,000, at most, to run phone lines through the conduit he had already installed. Instead, Mr. Willett received a customer work order with an estimate of $13,233 for “relocation of Verizon aerial facilities to customer provided conduit for undergrounding service…”
The estimate included $7,342 for 63 hours of labor to install wires, $2,255 for 14 hours of engineering, $2,561 for materials, $720 for a police road detail for 16 hours, and $354 for contractor charges. Mr. Willett had already submitted an engineering design deposit of $225, so he was instructed to return the signed agreement with a check for $13,008.06.
Mr. Willett said he thought there must be some mistake. He called Outside Plant Engineer Pete Decosta, the person listed on the work order to contact with questions or concerns regarding the terms.
“I asked if it was supposed to be $1,300,” Mr. Willett said. “No, the guy said, $13,000. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I told him. But he wasn’t.” Mr. Decosta told him he used a template on his computer to figure the estimate.
One project, two perspectives
Phil Santoro, Verizon’s media relations manager for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said his company’s part in the project involved more than Mr. Willett realized.
“If he compares what we have to do with what an electrical contractor has to do, there’s a huge difference,” Mr. Santoro said. “There is a lot more difficulty and a lot more work involved for a project like this for Verizon than what an electrical contractor does.”
Despite the fact that Mr. Willett installed conduit, Mr. Santoro said Verizon would have to install its own, which is a two-day job. The project would also involve several people, which he said explains the 63-hour charge for labor. Verizon also has to hire a police detail for projects on a public road, he added.
“It’s pretty extensive, because we have to dig up the road, lay conduit, and splice wires from existing wires from the street, to run through the conduit to the house,” Mr. Santoro said. “There are two Verizon terminals that have to be entered.”
In regard to Mr. Willett’s reaction to Verizon’s charges, Mr. Santoro said he spoke with other Verizon personnel, who told him, “An electrical contractor who has done these types of projects before would not be surprised by the cost.”
Mr. Willett said he has done projects in the past that involved underground conduit, but few that required taking wires down. After he received Verizon’s estimate, he said he asked other Island electricians about their recent experiences.
“I’ve heard between $24,000 and $70,000 for Verizon charges, as different examples from people who went through the same thing,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the contractor whose estimate was $70,000 said, ‘We’re not doing it.'”
Time versus money
In addition to his surprise at the charges, Mr. Willett said the timing of Verizon’s estimate put him into a “hostage situation.”
“We’ve already gotten into this project, we’re almost done and are wrapping it up, and we say, Verizon, you’ve got to come and do your thing,” he said. “And they’re like, sure, give us 13 grand. Now, you can’t argue with them.”
Any project to bury wires underground starts with NSTAR, Mr. Willett explained.
“As electricians, we do the work under their supervision and obviously with their help, because they have to make the connections,” he said. “In this situation, NSTAR charged about $1,825, which included about $1,500 that is basically engineering charges for doing the work, plus the cost of three trucks and four men for eight hours.”
Mr. Willett said that he can’t execute a contract for an underground project until he has full approval from NSTAR. “Now, before I even get that approval, I’m simultaneously supposed to get some kind of engineering done by Verizon and pay a $225 deposit in advance, before Verizon will give me an estimate,” he said. “And at that time, they’re going to give you these outrageous prices. In some cases, it will probably kill a project.”
Mr. Willett said the Hvoslef Way project was not a situation in which he could advise his customer to tell Verizon no, because the utility poles were already down and it had to be done.
“Verizon said whether or not other customers’ lines ran through the conduit, he would have to pay the $13,000,” Mr. Willett said. There were five Verizon customers on the street.
“My customer caved and has since paid the bill, so we’re out of luck on this one,” he said. “But there are people, especially on Chappaquiddick, that need projects like this done, and in some cases can’t do what they want because of Verizon’s charges. Islanders need to be aware this is happening; we need to get together and say no.”
Mr. Willett said his customer paid $10,000 of the Verizon bill and he paid $3,000. Although he contacted the Better Business Bureau about the charges first, he said he thought the Attorney General’s office would really take an interest. On the form Mr. Willett filed with the Attorney General’s office, he said the outcome he sought was review of his complaint for possible mediation, with price reduction as the resolution. He also wrote a letter of complaint to Verizon.
Mr. Willett received a response from the Attorney General’s office dated August 2 from Brittany Kaminski, a Public Inquiry and Assistance Center mediator.
“The Attorney General’s Office offers a free, voluntary mediation program aimed at resolving disputes between consumers and businesses outside of court,” Ms. Kaminski’s letter said. “Although we cannot require a merchant to participate in this voluntary service, many businesses do choose to take part in the process.”
Ms. Kaminski said she forwarded Mr. Willett’s complaint to the local consumer program, the Cape Cod Consumer Assistance Council, in Hyannis.
Consumer Mediator Michele Jemress sent a letter dated August 7 to Mr. Willett, informing him she had mailed a copy of his complaint to the Attorney General’s office to Verizon, along with a response form. A few weeks later, she called Mr. Willett and said Verizon declined to participate in mediation.
With mediation off the table, Mr. Willett said he is still in the process of trying to get his money back and will revisit the Attorney General’s office. Beyond what happens there, he plans to file a class action lawsuit so that other people who have had similar experiences will be heard.
“Island electricians are trying to do these projects all the time for a good purpose, not just for beautification,” Mr. Willett said. “Getting power lines underground is inherently important, because it keeps them safer, away from hurricanes and other weather conditions, so we don’t have them falling on the ground. I would think Verizon would want to encourage this type of project, because phone lines aren’t as strong as power lines, so they are more affected by bad weather.”