Council decreases
WEU’s power rates|Customers’ complaints bring a swift response by way of a split vote

Published 7:32 pm Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Contributing Editor

Washington Electric Utilities customers will see their electric rates reduced by about 3.2 percent.
After hearing complaints about high electric rates and fees and deposits charged to people delinquent in paying their electric bills, the Washington City Council voted 3-2 to decrease WEU’s electric rates. The decision come during the council’s meeting Monday. In June, the council increased the electric rates by 5.7 percent, effective July 1.
It was unclear when the new rates take effect.
Mayor Pro Tempore Doug Mercer made the motion to reduce the electric rates to 2.5 percent above what they were on March 1. That motion was seconded by Councilman Archie Jennings. Mercer, Jennings and Councilman Gil Davis voted for the motion. Councilmen Darwin Woolard and Richard Brooks voted against it.
The council’s decision came after Linda White and a man (who did not identify himself) told the council about their problems with paying their electric bills. White, who said she is on a fixed income, said she was $83 short of completely paying a recent bill. White said she paid what she could on the bill, then worked on raising the remaining $83. White said she raised the $83, but when she went to pay off her bill, she was told she had to pay a $300 deposit because she had been placed on the list of customers scheduled to have their electricity turned off.
White said that, eventually, it cost her $414 to pay off her bill and keep the power on at her mobile home. White said her brother used his credit card to cover the $414 she owed the city. White said she is in the process of paying back her brother.
White said she considers the city’s policies regarding power cut-offs and additional deposits as “unfair practices” that “penalize” customers who are doing their best to pay their bills.
The man, who identified himself as the fiance of Jessica Jeffers, expressed his and Jeffers’ concerns with the city’s electric rates and cut-off and deposit policies.
Mayor Judy Meier Jennette said she and council members have received numerous similar complaints in recent months. Jennette suggested the city’s electric utility advisory board review the situation and make recommendations regarding it.
Jennings said that considering the recent hard economic conditions resulting in people suffering financially, the city has a responsibility to keep costs, including electric rates, down as much as possible to help those people. Jennings also noted the city’s electric fund transfers about $1.2 million to the general fund each fiscal year.
“We’re breaking people’s backs. … We simply can’t keep doing that,” Jennings said.
City Manager James C. Smith said that without the transfer, the city’s property-tax rate would have to be increased by 12 cents to generate the same amount of revenue. Smith said the transfer from the electric fund to the general fund is similar to a private power company like Progress Energy paying a dividend to its stockholders.
Mercer said calculations he made regarding the recent increase in electric rates and the city’s cost for buying power indicated to him the city could afford to decrease the electric rates. He said the city could afford to lower the electric rates.
Davis said he was among those who did not support increasing electric rates earlier this year, saying it was time for the council to rethink its decision to increase the rates.
Brooks and Woolard warned their colleagues on the council to not act in haste and take time to study the matter before making a decision that might place the electric fund in a bind and have to be reversed in the near future.
“They need the help, and they need the help now,” Jennings said about WEU’s customers, which he said did not want the council to wait before acting on the matter.
Woolard called Mercer, Jennings and Davis “hypocrites” for “ramrodding” the decrease through. Woolard said those three councilmen have made a point in the past of not acting on items brought before the council at the same meeting at which those items were introduced, saying they wanted time to study those items.
Woolard accused Mercer, Jennings and Davis of abandoning that procedure because they wanted something.
For additional coverage of the council’s meeting, see future editions of the Washington Daily News.