Texas Cities Pursue Fines Against Charter

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Fort Worth and nine other Texas cities are seeking local approval for a formal hearing to end a dispute with Charter Communications Inc. over customer-service lapses.

Fort Worth cable services manager Randy Westerman said it would be a couple of months before each city’s council votes on whether to allocate funds to hire an attorney and an administrative law judge to run the hearing.

The cities want legal help to force Charter to pay a total of $4.7 million in liquidated damages they’ve sought since the beginning of 2003.

Also in the consortium: Fort Worth suburbs Benbrook, Burleson, Denton, Hurst, Keller, North Richland Hills, Saginaw and Southlake. Each city has a similar cable franchise with identical customer-service requirements, though the length of the arrangements varies.

The cities commissioned an audit of Charter’s call centers in Fort Worth, Duncanville and Denton in 2003 and found that the MSO wasn’t answering 90% of calls in 30 seconds or less, as required.

Westerman said the assessment was based, in part, on Charter’s treatment of statistics during “abnormal operating” periods, when service disruptions occur that are beyond the control of an operator.

Operators still have to report their response times during those periods, but in most communities there’s an agreed-upon formula for putting the data in context.

But the Fort Worth consortium based its service assessment on raw data, because cities couldn’t figure out how Charter standardizes numbers generated during outages. The cities figure Charter was answering 70% of calls on time during certain periods, Westerman said.

Charter disagrees with the methodology the cities used to measuring service response during “acts of God,” said Margaret Lejuste, Charter’s Midwest director of government affairs. Charter has provided the cities with a lot of information on call response that justifies its accounting, she said.

“We’re keeping up a good dialogue and I’m really confident it will come out just fine,” she said of the dispute.

Charter has closed two of the three local call centers, consolidating operations in Fort Worth. But Lejuste said that single center has as many seats as the three smaller ones, and that Charter now can offer true around-the-clock support, instead of employing after-hours answering machines at smaller centers.

Service levels have been remained the same since the audit, according to Westerman, whose city levied a $2.66 million fine.

He said city officials call the Charter call center every day, and most calls roll over to a regional call center in Florida.