Few taking advantage of plan for high bills

Published 10:35 am Wednesday, March 14, 2018

According to City Manager R. Randy Martin, by the close of business on Monday, a total of 226 Franklin Power and Light customers had taken advantage of the city’s offer of a seven-month payment plan for their February electric bills. Martin announced the current participation during a City Council meeting that evening, which he said amounted to only around 4 percent of Franklin Power and Light’s total customer base.

The council had voted 6-1 to offer the payment plan during their previous meeting on Feb. 26 after discussing for nearly a month how to best offer relief to hundreds of city residents who had received high bills earlier that month for usage from Dec. 22 through Jan. 21. Residents reported seeing bills of $800, $900 and some even over $1,000.

The payment plan allows residents to pay their February bills in installments equal to what they paid on the previous month’s bill without fear of penalties or power cutoffs for up to seven months, provided that they pay each month’s bill current after February. The plan does not apply to any balance due prior to February.

Martin said that the average February utility bill for residents on the plan was $363.73, which would equate to payments of $51.96 if repayment was stretched over the full seven months offered.

“They don’t have to go up to seven months, some might pay it off earlier because some amounts were pretty low,” he explained.

Martin also clarified that the utility bills the city sends out each month include one total for water, sewer and electricity usage as well as garbage collection. As such, the amount billed in February would not be entirely for heat.

Councilman Greg McLemore asked if the city could better publicize the payment plan and its requirements, namely that those who wish to take advantage of it must first make arrangements with the city’s billing department.

Martin also announced that by the council meeting scheduled for Monday, March 26, he hopes to have a cost estimate for an independent energy audit, which would include certifying the equal application of the appropriate utility rates and the accuracy of the city’s utility equipment. The motion passed in late February authorizing the payment plan mandates that this audit be completed by the end of August.

In other business, Mark Bly, director of Franklin Power and Light, made a departmental report to the council, during which he announced that wholesale power costs are projected to increase by 6.6 percent for fiscal year 2019. FP&L purchases the bulk of its wholesale electricity from a seven-municipality co-op known as the Virginia Municipal Electric Association or VMEA, and a small amount of hydro power from the Southeastern Power Administration (SEPA.)

FP&L is not proposing to pass the additional cost on to residents via a retail rate increase at this time, he confirmed, but said that final costs will not be known until June 1. Bly also informed the council that over 50 customers had requested meter inspections and rereads in February after seeing the bills that were mailed earlier that month.

Steve Wampler of Eanes Appraisal Group LTD also presented an overview of the results of the city’s biennial reassessment of real estate values. Real estate tax value assessments actually went up about 2.2 percent on average, he said. Martin added that this is the first increase in values that the city has seen since 2012.

Wampler confirmed that all notices of tax reassessments were mailed on Feb. 26 and that the firm was now in the process of scheduling appointments to discuss appeals to their findings.

“So far, we’ve logged in 42 appointments, we’ve had six mail-in appeals,” he said.

Mayor Frank Rabil encouraged any residents who had questions regarding their new real estate tax assessments or wished to dispute the firm’s findings to make an appointment with the firm.

The only action the council took that evening was to pass a resolution in support of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission’s opposition to offshore drilling on the grounds that it could impact naval operations. The resolution passed 6-0 with Councilman Bobby Cutchins abstaining.