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City residents question electric rates, system
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Covington residents used Monday's city council meeting as a forum to discuss high electricity bills and to ask city officials if they could offer residents any help.
More than 30 residents attended and asked questions about utility assistance, electric prices and increasing competition within Covington.

Latisha McClure said she has been trying to reduce her energy usage, but no matter what steps she takes her bill never decreases.

"It's hard trying to keep paying these large utility bills," McClure said. "I try to reduce washing. I conserve my lights and am not using a lot of electricity. Everything is cut off; we don't use our computer but two days out of the week. But we can't keep that bill down."

Low Temps lead to High Bills
Utility Director Bill Meecham said this has been the coldest winter since at least 1978, so even if residents have reduced usage in other areas, their increased heating bill likely eclipsed any savings.
He said, according to the National Weather Service, there have been already been 15 days below freezing this year, while there were only six days in all of 2009. Even though his house uses gas, and the city has paratively low gas rates, his bill has doubled over the winter.

"If the average temperature drops down to 35 degrees, it takes quite a lot more (energy to heat). Especially if it's day after day; that makes the house colder and it take a lot more (energy) to make up the difference. The fact we have a good deal on gas, that's a blessing, but when you're using a lot more of it, that hurts," Meecham said. "We hate to say it, we feel bad for folks that this has happened, but the fact is this is weather conditions, and weather conditions a re something we can't do a lot about."
Meecham said he used 15 MCFs in January 2009, but 33 MCFs in 2010.

Electric and Gas
In addition, McClure's apartment is totally electric, and Mayor Kim Carter said that's also hurting her. While Carter said the city has worked hard to stabilize, and even reduce, electricity rates, its natural gas rates are much lower. Meecham estimated Covington's natural gas rates are about 5 percent lower than Atlanta marketers.
Carter said when she took over as mayor, Covington had the second highest electricity rates in the state.

"We didn't have enough base load power (before) so we had to buy from the (open) market at a high rate. We purchased 10MW recently and have lowered electric rates. We are now in the middle of the pack," Carter said. "The bottom line for an electrical customer is that their bill has decreased $140 per year per household."

Utility Assistance
City officials said there are several local organizations that can provide utility assistance. Partnership for Community Action is a non-profit group that helps low-income persons in DeKalb, Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties.

PCA offers several utility assistance programs. The HEAT program, Heating Energy Assistance Team, is for low-income residents who have received a disconnection notice from their power provider. After filing an application with PCA, residents can receive money within 48 hours - within 18 hours if the person is in a life-threatening situation. To apply for this program call PCA's DeKalb headquarters at (404) 929-2500 and hit "0" to speak to an operator.

The City of Covington also participates with PCA for Project roundup. Covington utility customers can choose to enroll voluntarily in this program, and their utility bill will then "round up" to the next highest dollar amount. The amount is considered a tax-deductible donation and the money goes to PCA, where low-income residents can then apply to receive it. To inquire about this program, call the Rockdale PCA at (770) 760-8750.
The final PCA program is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. Low-income residents can apply for up to $350 of assistance by visiting the Conyers Street Gym, at 1146 Conyers St. or by calling (770) 875-2642.

Although LIHEAP is a PCA program, the local Covington location is actually staffed by the nonprofit group Action, Inc., an Athens-based group. This has been the source of much confusion because of the group's similar names.

Diane, who didn't give her last name because she thought it might be against company policy, works in the local Covington Action office. She said residents have also been confused because the Action office is simply an application office. Residents only fill out their applications in Covington; the applications are processed in DeKalb. Diane said the Action office has neither computers nor landlines. The office number is a cell phone number.

In addition, the Action office does not accept walk-ins; applicants are put on a waiting list and called when an opening arrives. Finally, LIHEAP is not for people who need help immediately. Diane said eligible residents won't have their power bills paid until six to 10 weeks after applying. The program will either last until April or until funds run out.
Other local organizations that provide utility assistance include FaithWorks, which can be reached at (770) 784-1884, and the Salvation Army, which can be reached at (770) 786-2107.

Meecham said if residents are unable to pay their bill they should also notify the city's customer service representatives at (770) 385-2000.

City residents also asked the possibility of forming power relationships with companies like Georgia Power, and whether they could sign up with companies other than Covington.

City Manager Steve Horton said the city has looked at buying power from other companies, including Georgia Power and Snapping Shoals, but in the end purchased power from the City of Marietta and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia.
Meecham pointed out that MEAG, a collection of cities that sell power, is a large company in itself, and is investing in additional sources like the nuclear power plant, Plant Votgle.

As far as residents signing up with companies other than Covington, Carter said that each power provider has a defined service delivery strategy and customers are locked into one provider.

Forrest Sawyer Jr. asked why Covington was considering raising its residential rates. At their Feb. 1 meeting, the council approved the first reading of an ordinance change to increase residential rates by 3.91 percent and subsequently decrease commercial rates by 5.36 percent. The mayor said the changes had been proposed because businesses had been subsidizing residential customers, who had been paying less for their electricity than it cost the city to produce. She said the rates have not been changed since 2000.

Sawyer also asked if rates would go down if the city sold its power system, but Carter responded that the utilities are responsible for a lot of the city's revenue.

"Utilities subsidize taxes, I'm just going to tell it like it is. I can't imagine what our property tax bill would have to be to offset our contribution from utilities," she said.
If the city didn't have its utility revenue, it would have to raise property axes significantly. The city brings in about $5 million from property taxes and about $12 million from utilities. The city makes more money on utility rates, because its service area is much larger than its actual taxable property area.

The mayor said she had to cut the nearly 45-minute long discussion short, because the council had to finish the rest of its long agenda. She suggested a public work session about utility rates could be a possibility in the future.

The council has not voted on a second reading of the ordinance to change residential and commercial rates, and Carter said any final changes would likely be discussed at the city's retreat on March 17-19. Meecham said the city's main concern is to be fair to all customer groups.