Residents seek help with utility bills

COVINGTON -- For the second consecutive Covington City Council meeting, residents asked elected officials to do something to address high utility bills.

Resident Rosie Crawford, who acted as a spokesperson for dozens of residents at the council's March 2 meeting, came again Monday night to plead for help.

Though city officials said utility rates have not changed and are lower than many other providers, Crawford said residents are still struggling to pay their bills. It can take up to six to eight weeks to get assistance from nonprofit organizations, she said, and by that time, residents' utilities may be cut off. She asked the council to find more help for citizens.

City Manager Steve Horton said the city's rates are not as high as other provider's, referencing a residential rate survey for winter 2010 by the Georgia Public Service Commission.

The survey shows that the city's rate for 500 kilowatt hours is the 18th lowest out of 95 providers. For 1,000 kilowatt hours, it is the 37th lowest; the 34th lowest for 1,500 kilowatt hours and the 33rd lowest for 2,000 kilowatt hours.

According to data from the city, the cost per MCF (1,000 cubic feet), of natural gas has decreased since 2006. In March 2006, the cost was $13.82. That dropped to $12.95 in March 2007; rose to $13.31 in 2008; dropped to $11.74 in March 2009 and $11.40 in March 2010. The months of January and February show similar declines.

Mayor Kim Carter said rates are already affordable compared to other utilities.

"I don't know that we as a business can go down on our rates because number one, we're affordable," she said. Also, utilities are used to subsidize property taxes, she said previously, and if rates were reduced, property taxes would likely climb.

Carter said for every $1 worth of electricity supplied to residents, they are paying less than $1. Residential utility costs are being subsidized by the commercial sector, she said.

The city's rates have not increased; higher utility bills can be attributed to more usage due to the cold winter, she said.

Also, Carter said the majority of residents who are struggling live in historically black neighborhoods with substandard housing that is often not weatherized, without insulation, double-paned windows and in some cases with "daylight streaming through the doors."

"To solve this problem in the long-run we've got to work on our housing," Carter said, noting that the city has undertaken a housing initiative to address some of those problems.

Ultimately, City Manager Steve Horton suggested the city form a joint committee of residents, council members and city staff to find additional resources and assistance for residents.

"I listened to Ms. Crawford. She understands the numbers are what they are. She also understands people still can't pay their utility bills," Horton said.

Crawford thanked the council for addressing her concerns and volunteered to participate in the committee.

Forrest Sawyer also spoke out on utility rates, saying it appears some residents are paying more than others. He alleged that certain segments are getting help with reducing or eliminating bills from the city, such as property owners in Clark's Grove who are implementing a solar power system. Sawyer said an employee of the city, Planning Director Randy Vinson, one of the property owners, stands to make "enormous profits off the venture."

Carter said the property owners obtained a grant for the project and the city did not assist in that. The city met with the property owners to hammer out a policy it could use for similar projects in the future in case other residents or businesses also want to utilize solar power, she said.

The city of Covington will buy excess power generated from the system, a requirement of the grant. According to Utilities Director Bill Meecham, the city will pay for the power based on what it would pay a wholesale electric supplier in the form of a credit on their bill.

"The solar installations we're doing are nine kilowatts and will offset our power bills from 20 to 25 percent, if he considers that making money," Vinson said.

Five property owners received a $250,000 federal grant to cover 80 percent of the cost of the project. Each property owner will pay a $12,000 share. Typically, such an investment would net a payback in 20 years, but with the federal grant reducing each share, that could be reduced to five years.

"Anything after that I guess could be considered profit, but it's coming in the form of a reduced bill. These systems are not large enough to cover all the power we use. It's never going to provide more electricity than the facility actually uses. It's a way to save money, and that's not even why we're doing it. We're doing it to become a model community for reducing the carbon footprint,'' Vinson said.

Carter said all customers pay the same utility rates.

"We don't sell utilities based on people's ability to pay," she said.

Councilman Mike Whatley said it's illegal for the city to reduce or increase rates for certain segments of the population and rates must be the same across the board.

"To insinuate that we as a council and city are targeting areas and some people are paying more utilities than others, I'm a little offended by that," Whatley said.

"This is a business. That doesn't mean we have to make a huge profit but it does mean we have to break even financially," he added.

Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said she will do whatever she can to help residents with utility bills.

"It's hard for me to concentrate on a lot of other things when the people of my district are hurting so," she said.