City sets up plan for high bills

Published 9:48 am Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Franklin residents who received higher-than-normal electric bills in February will be allowed to pay them off in installments over the next seven months without fear of penalties or power cutoffs. This motion by City Councilman Benny Burgess passed 6-1 during Monday’s council meeting.

Burgess’s motion specified that these installment payments must be equal to whatever amount was billed during the previous month and that residents must pay each month’s bill current after February. The installment payment option and promise of no penalties or cutoffs would likewise not apply to any balance due prior to February, Burgess said.

During the council’s Feb. 12 meeting, city residents filled the pews of the council chamber in City Hall, many with their utility statements in-hand, to ask the council for relief after seeing bills as high as $800, $900 or even over $1,000 for power usage from Dec. 22 through Jan. 21.

Also included in Burgess’s motion was his suggestion to immediately set up a fund to which residents could donate to help others with their electric bills. The final component of the motion authorized City Manager R. Randy Martin to submit to the council during its last meeting in March the cost to have an independent energy audit, which would include certifying the equal application of the appropriate utility rates and the accuracy of the city’s equipment. The funding for the study would come from the city’s electric fund and the study is mandated to be completed by the end of this August.

The dissenting vote on the motion came from Councilman Greg McLemore, who expressed concerns that residents on fixed incomes might not be able to afford to make installment payments for February every month on top of paying their current monthly utility bills in full. Instead, he suggested, as he had during the past two council meetings, that 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 the city received from Dominion last October.

A memorandum from Martin to the council members, dated Feb. 21, indicated that were McLemore’s suggestion to be implemented, the cost to the city’s electric fund would be approximately $713,666.37. The share of this total credit that each individual Franklin Power and Light customer would receive toward his or her February bill would be as follows based on an estimated credit rate of 0.0387 cents per kilowatt of electricity used per hour:

• A 1,500-kilowatt-per-hour user would realize a credit of approximately $57.99 on a $280.29 bill.

• A 4,000 kilowatt-per-hour user would realize a credit of approximately $164.64 on a $480.76 bill.

• A 6,000 kilowatt-per-hour user would realize a credit of approximately $231.96 on a $721.14 bill.

According to Martin, granting these credits would leave the city with $232,726.40 in its electric fund’s remaining net cash balance for February. This would be the lowest cash balance the city’s electric fund would have ever seen, he said, and would leave the fund unable to meet any unexpected needs or respond to any emergencies such as weather-related power infrastructure damage.

Mayor Frank Rabil said that while he agreed that issuing credits might seem like the equitable thing to do, the city was “not in that business” and that doing so could have an adverse effect on residents’ other bills.

“The money we make from the electric department offsets your real estate taxes,” he said. “Guess what’s going to happen to your rent. We’re trying to keep housing affordable. We have to look at the big picture.”

Burgess, justifying his position over McLemore’s, said that to try to provide an equitable solution to everyone in the city would be virtually impossible because everybody’s situation is different, and that issuing credits would set a bad precedent for the city should a similar situation occur in the future.

Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham and councilmen Linwood Johnson and Bobby Cutchins also briefly discussed an alternative “budget plan” where residents could pay their average annual usage over 12 months based on last year’s totals, which would be trued up periodically based on actual usage, resulting in either a bill for the extra usage or a refund if usage was less than anticipated. However, this suggestion was not acted upon.

In other business, the council voted unanimously to adopt a new non-exclusive cable franchise agreement with Charter Communications and to approve Verizon’s lease of a 50-foot by 50-foot plot of land located on the north side of Fairview Drive.

The wireless company plans to construct a cell tower on the site.