Residents brief congressman on high electric bills

Published 10:58 am Saturday, March 3, 2018

At the invitation of City Councilman Greg McLemore, U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-3) participated in a town hall meeting to discuss the unprecedentedly high February electric bills residents had received from the city. The meeting took place Thursday afternoon in Paul D. Camp Community College’s Regional Workforce Development Center.

During the first City Council meeting in February, numerous residents had implored the council to enact some form of relief after they had received utility bills of $800, $900 and some even over $1,000 for power usage from Dec. 22 through Jan. 21. Last Monday, the council voted 6-1 to allow residents to spread out payment of their February bills over the next seven months in installments equal to whatever they had paid in January for usage from November through December last year.

The town hall meeting was not well publicized, with The Tidewater News only hearing of it around noon on Thursday, and Franklin Mayor Frank Rabil saying he had only learned of the event after the fact. By press time on Friday, McLemore was unable to be reached for comments regarding the lack of notification.

For his part, the congressman said he had already been planning to be in the city that evening as a guest at the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce’s Business of the Year awards ceremony, and since Franklin was one of his constituent communities, he had agreed to accept McLemore’s invitation.

First to speak during the town hall meeting was Antonio Parham of Kings Lane in Ward 2 of the city.

“I moved down here from northern Suffolk and I still have a house there,” Parham said. “I lived in northern Suffolk for 21 years and the highest light bill I ever got was $421. I’ve been here since December 2016 and I’ve paid an average of $552 per month.”

Parham then said he had just paid his February Franklin Power and Light bill earlier that day, which he said was for $1,304 and some change. By comparison, his house in Suffolk, which he still owns, had a February bill of $344, he said.

“I have a decent-sized house but I know guys who have businesses, big businesses, that don’t pay this much,” he said. “I don’t know where these numbers are coming from. They [the city] said I used 10,264 kilowatts. I don’t see how one family could use that number of kilowatts.”

He then admitted that his house in Suffolk, built in 1972, was smaller than his Franklin home, 1,700 square feet compared to 3,381 square feet, but said that his Franklin home was much newer, having been built in 2008.

The heat pumps at both properties, he said, were the same age, having both been installed in 2008.

Another speaker was Frances Sharp of North High Street, who had previously spoken to the newspaper about her $891 utility statement for February. Earlier that day she had made a $300 payment on the bill.

“I have to pay my rent,” said Sharp. “Their [the city’s] solution to our problem is installments. Aren’t there [going to be] two more light bills while I’m paying installments?”

Several residents besides Parham expressed doubts regarding the accuracy of the kilowatt-per-hour usage reported on their electric bills, to which Scott responded that residents should be able to read their own meters at the beginning of an electric bill pay period, then take another reading at the end of the pay period, subtract the former from the latter, and compare the resulting figure with what is reported on their bills.

He also suggested they get an energy audit of their homes.

“If you actually use four times more electricity then you can’t blame the bill,” the congressman said. “Everybody’s meter can’t be wrong at the same time unless it’s something in the central body [that reads them.]”

Another matter that came up was when several attendees questioned how much profit the city’s municipal electric company, Franklin Power and Light, should be making by reselling electricity it purchases from the Virginia Municipal Electric Association. VMEA is a co-op that provides wholesale electric service to seven Virginia municipalities including Franklin, the city of Manassas, the Harrisonburg Electric Commission and the towns of Blackstone, Elkton, Culpeper and Wakefield.

To this concern, Scott replied that the amount of profit Franklin Power and Light should be allowed to make was a matter of local policy to be decided by the city’s council, and suggested — as Franklin Mayor Frank Rabil had during previous council meetings on the matter — that residents’ electric bills and FP&L’s subsequent profits may be offsetting what the city would need to charge in real estate taxes.

“You have to pay taxes one way or the other, the question is whether you pay through a real estate tax, the primary local tax, or through an electric bill,” Scott said.

Scott did point out that there were state and federal laws in place to ensure that local real estate taxes were in line with residents’ ability to pay, and that less legislative protections exist for situations like Franklin in which the city is supplying electricity.

“The requirement is that the [tax] assessment be an honest value of the house,” he explained.

When asked what solution, legislative or otherwise, he would recommend for dealing with the high bills, Scott said that he did not have an answer, but felt that most people could not afford bills like the ones he was shown on Thursday.

“About half the country can’t pay a $500 unexpected bill, it’s something we can’t ignore,” he said.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Parham’s last named as “Parhal” and attributed Scott’s statement on taxes to Rabil.