Rates electrify forum

Published 12:32 am Saturday, September 17, 2011

The rates charged by the city-owned Washington Electric Utilities cropped up repeatedly Thursday night during a forum sponsored by the Conservative Beaufort County Republican Men’s Club.

Gathered at the Beaufort County Courthouse, all six participating City Council candidates referenced the rates charged by WEU, with most, if not all, of the candidates saying the rates should be lowered.

Few of the speakers offered specific proposals for lowering the rates levied against residents, churches and businesses.

In his opening statement, incumbent Councilman Ed Moultrie said he’d like to see the council further reduce the residential rate.

He mentioned the council-approved 5-percent electric rate reduction in the city budget for fiscal year 2011-2012. This reduction applied to in-town utilities customers only.

“I think the electric rates in our city have to continue to come down,” Moultrie said, suggesting he’d spoken with residents who’d complained about their high utility bills.

“In many instances, their light bill is more than their rent, and I think we have to do something to really lower the rates,” Moultrie said.

Moultrie attended the forum with fellow incumbent Councilmen William Pitt, Bobby Roberson, Doug Mercer and challengers Rick Gagliano and Lloyd May.

Current Councilman Gil Davis and former Councilman Richard Brooks did not attend the forum.

Later during the event, Mercer, responding to a media question from WITN-TV anchor Dave Jordan, pointed to the city’s debt service as part of the problem in the utilities arena.

The city invested in a cooperative venture leading to the construction of power plants many years ago, he pointed out. As a result, the city has around $140 million in power-plant debt left to pay down, Mercer said, adding the debt will be fully paid in 2027.

The city is a member of the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency. The members of this agency buy their power wholesale from NCEMPA. Collectively, the 32 NCEMPA members face about $2.4 billion in debt, and Washington’s share was $144 million at last report.

“The solution, to me, is to get out of the electric business,” Mercer said, adding legal entanglements and the ongoing debt would get in the way of that move.

Other candidates, May and Gagliano among them, said the city needs to push harder to get households involved in the load-management program to reduce individual utility bills. May serves on the city’s Electric Utilities Advisory Commission.

Roberson, too, highlighted the load-management program, but brought up the city’s budget-billing program, which allows WEU customers to pay a monthly average and settle up on their balance at the end of the year.

A couple of the incumbents restated the present council’s pledge to reduce transfers from the electric fund to the general fund.

In previous fiscal years, the annual transfer from the electric fund to the general fund was a little more than $1 million.

The electric-fund transfer in the past fiscal year’s budget amounted to around $973,000, about $200,000 less than transfers from the fund in the previous fiscal year.

Pitt pointed out the five-member council is controlled by three votes.

“William Pitt by himself cannot lower utility rates,” he said.

But he implied more customer education could help lower some people’s bills.

“We have never really been taught how to use electricity,” he said.

The nonpartisan council election will be held Nov. 8.

Contributing Editor Mike Voss contributed to this story.