City residents demand answers for high power bills

Published 11:23 am Wednesday, February 14, 2018

It was standing room only in the council chamber of Franklin’s city hall on Monday evening as numerous residents, one by one, addressed the city’s council members during citizens’ time and demanded an explanation for their unprecedentedly high electric bills.

Even people living in small apartments reported bills over $800, $900 and some even over $1,000, leaving some like North High Street resident Patricia Abrams with the difficult choice of keeping their heat on during the below-freezing temperatures Franklin experienced in January, or paying the monthly rent.

“I’m 61 years old, I have COPD, I’ve had a heart attack, what do I do? Sleep in my car?” Abrams asked the members of council, adding that she is now getting evicted since no money is left for rent.

“This is extremely depressing,” said Lavernial Barnes, also of North High Street. “I got a bill for utilities for $1,076. My immediate response was, OK, we’ll go downtown and they’ll either do something about the bill or I will board this house up and move from Franklin because apparently they do not want me here.”

Frances Sharp, another North High Street resident who lives in an apartment, told both The Tidewater News and ABC 13News Now that last week she had received a bill for around $891, up about 70 percent from her previous $522 electric bill.

She added that her typical monthly electric bills have ranged from $200 to $300, and that the past two pay periods have been steep increases.

“If you’re on a fixed income, how do you pay that light bill?” she said. “If you pay your light bill, there’s no money for your rent, you’ll be put out.”

City Manager R. Randy Martin confirmed to The Tidewater News on Monday that the city’s electric usage and, subsequently, its electric bills, were the highest the city of Franklin has ever experienced in all the years that it has been providing electricity to residents via its municipal power company, Franklin Power and Light. He added that, on average, the current bills mailed out this past week for electric usage from Dec. 22 through Jan. 21 were 45 percent higher than those mailed in January for usage from November to December of last year.

As to the reason electricity usage and bills were so much higher this time around, Martin blamed the below-freezing and at times single-digit temperatures the Western Tidewater region experienced during the “bomb cyclone” winter storm in January, as well as a lack of energy efficiency in the construction of some of the city’s older homes and the methods used to heat them.

“A significant number [of residents] had double what they normally use, particularly if they use or rely on a heat pump [or] electric heat,” Martin said. “Those are the two most common heating sources in this part of the country. Heat pumps in particular are really inefficient during extreme weather conditions.

“They aren’t designed to keep normal temperatures because that’s not common to our area year-round. They have built in what’s referred to as electric strip heating, when the unit cannot keep the temperature at the desired setting. If those come on continuously, those are the most inefficient source of heat, and it runs up the bills.”

Martin also said that the temperature at which people set their thermostats in the winter can also have a huge impact on monthly electric bills. However, Sharp was not buying his explanation for her personal situation. She said that her apartment’s HVAC system was brand new, as were all her windows, and that she keeps her thermostat set between 60-65ºF, even in the winter, because of sinus problems.

“Any higher and it would mess with my sinuses and give me a headache,” she said. “There’s just no excuse. They can’t come up with an excuse for these unreasonable light bills.”

She also praised Councilman Greg McLemore for his comments on the matter. McLemore suggested residents be allowed to pay their average monthly bill plus an extra 15 percent to account for usage during the snow, with the remainder of their bill for this past pay period forgiven using the $500,000 true-up credit FP&L received from Dominion in October.

“I just learned today that one other [resident] has a $2,000 bill, that’s unheard of,” McLemore said. “It would not bankrupt this city to give these people relief this one time on these exorbitant bills.

“Nowhere else in the country are people getting bills as high as the people of Franklin, so I would say there is something mechanically wrong with our equipment.”

To support his theory of a mechanical problem with the city’s meters, he cited a semi-recent incident where the city refunded J.P. King Jr. Middle School $127,992 on its electric bill after an error was discovered in what the school’s meter reported to Franklin Power and Light.

Additional suggestions on how council could best address this issue came from Martin and Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham.

Martin suggested the city agree not to cut anybody’s power over the next few weeks as the council continues to explore the problem, and that the city offer residents a payment plan for their February bills. Cheatham also said that McLemore’s idea was a short-term fix, and that the city needed to come up with a budget plan to create a long-term solution.

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to not cut anybody’s power until they could come up with a workable solution.