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Published: Wednesday, 1/24/2001

Columbia Gas hires firm to read meters

Columbia Gas of Ohio customers will find unfamiliar faces requesting to read the gas meter, starting Monday. The utility is ending its meter service in the Toledo area and hiring an outside firm.

Bermex, Inc., of Southfield, Mich., will begin taking over a few meter reading routes from Columbia Gas employees next week and will ease into the job over the next two months to read meters for 175,000 customers.

``They've set it up so there's a transition that will be seamless to the customers,'' said Gina Thompson, a Columbia Gas spokesman.

However, area customers should be on the lookout for Bermex employees, who will have identification cards, gray uniforms bearing the “Bermex” logo on the front and “Meter Reader” on the back, she said. Bermex reads meters for utilities mostly on the East Coast.

The move is the latest by Columbia Gas to streamline its operations by changing or eliminating services performed locally.

Ten employees represented by Local 349C, Utility Workers Union, will lose their meter-reading jobs but will be employed elsewhere by Columbia Gas, Ms. Thompson said. Union officials did not return phone calls for comment.

``They have been guaranteed the right to bid on other available jobs,'' she said.

Last February, Columbia Gas moved its Toledo-based service center to Columbus, eliminating 44 jobs. The Toledo center handled complaints by telephone from customers in Lucas County, northern Wood County, and western Ottawa County.

The service-center and meter-reading changes, Ms. Thompson said, are examples of the company trying to find a better way to do things.

“We've found it's very beneficial to the customer,'' she said.

Despite the savings to Columbia Gas, the meter reader change isn't likely to make a noticeable different in customers' bills, Ms. Thompson added.

The meter-reading service is all that Bermex will provide for the Toledo area. Such service is based on how many meters an employee can read in a day, from 200 to 2,000, depending on how close to each other the meters are.

The company will pay employees $10 an hour. Columbia Gas officials would not reveal how much it paid its meter readers.

Columbia Gas has used Bermex in Ohio since 1995, slowly turning over its meter-reading duties.

Within the last year, it has been hired to provide service in the outlying communities in northwest Ohio, including Fremont, Findlay, Fostoria, Port Clinton, Bowling Green, Norwalk, and Sandusky, Ms. Thompson said.

Columbia Gas gives customers a meter-read bill every other month. In between, bills are estimated based on use.

That approach won't change, and neither will the other services provided by the utility, including start-up and disconnect service and responding to gas leaks, Ms. Thompson said.



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