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Posted: March 17, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Council moves to address high utility concerns

The Covington City Council will consider the formation of utility committee that will be composed of residents, city officials and utility experts, in an effort to connect better to a community suffering from high utility prices.

For the second straight week residents used the public comments of Monday’s city council to discuss high utility rates.

City resident Rosie Crawford said regardless of whether the city has actually lowered its utility rates, too many residents simply can’t afford their bills.

She asked if the city could help in any way, by bringing in more utility assistance groups, by increasing property taxes and lowering utility rates or by simply lowering rates.

"So you (Mayor Kim Carter) also stated that you would hate to see what the taxes for property would be like if the only alternative (to lower utility rates) would be to increase the property taxes," Crawford said. "Certain segments of the population are bearing the brunt of the high utilities the city is being run on. So while property y owners who really, really own property are getting by without paying their percentage to the degree we are having to pay utilities to run the city."

Although the debate took place at the beginning of the meeting, it was at the end of the meeting after most people had left that City Manager Steve Horton said a committee could be a good idea. He suggested the group could brainstorm about ways to help lower utilities and could also use the community representatives to help inform their fellow residents.

"I think Ms. Crawford had a lot comments that were thought provoking, and if there are ways to entice or find out about utility assistance we should look into those (more)," he said. "We’re kind of spiraling a little bit out of control. The numbers are what they are. I listened to Ms. Crawford and she said she understood the numbers are what they are and she understood that people still cant pay the bills. The utilities still can be reasonable but people still can’t pay."

At the March 1 meeting, city officials referred needy residents to several non-profit groups that provided utility assistance. However, Crawford said that the problem is most of the groups, including the Salvation Army and FaithWorks, only provide one month of utility assistance to a residence every 12 months. For residents whose bills are high every month, that really doesn’t help.

She asked if there was a way to entice more non-profit groups to come to Covington, but Horton said that decision is up to the non-profits. However, when discussing the committee, he said they could explore outreach efforts.

Crawford then asked if it would be possible to reduce utility rates and raise property rates, because many of the poorer residents are being hurt by the high electricity rates.

Mayor Kim Carter said the real issue is the large stock of substandard housing in Covington.

"We have a high percentage of substandard housing. Housing with out a lick of insulation in the walls. Housing built a hundred years ago wasn’t meant to last a hundred years. We’ll call it like it is, the majority of substandard housing is in the African American historical neighborhoods," she said. "But again it’s back to usage. If you don’t have central heat and you’re on a fixed income and you’re have a space heater you plug it and in crank it up, the meter is going crazy out there."

She said the community has to improve housing, which she and the council have made a top priority. She also said that weatherization is incredibly important.

However, Crawford said some people have weatherized their house and are using less power, but can’t get bills down.

Carter said her bill went up around $80 per month because of increased gas usage, but Crawford said hers went up by $200. Others have seen even bigger increases.

It seemed the only alternative could be to reduce utility rates, but Carter said the city is running a business and can’t afford to lose money. However, Carter and several council members expressed empathy toward how their residents are feeling.

Forrest Sawyer Jr. asked if it was fair for residents who live in the county to subsidize the city’s budget by paying higher utility rates, but Carter said the city is providing a commodity and is charging a fair rate. Horton presented data obtained from the Public Service Commission’s Web site that showed Covington had a lower electricity rate than other cities in Newton County and Georgia Power and Snapping Shoals, for some usage categories.

During the discussion about the committee, Carter said some governments go so far as to use a utility authority to take politics out of the issue.

"Don’t know if we as a business we can afford to go down on the rates. Number one we’re already affordable … but if we did go down by a nickel per kilowatt hour, what would that mean to the government and the utility. Perhaps those conversations could happen," Carter said.

The council members agreed to discuss the utility issues at this week’s planning retreat.

"If there are enough complaints about an issue that institutes a problem," Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said. "We got to, need to, we’ve got to find a way to do something. This is not going to go away."

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