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Lawmakers can't find way to unplug high municipal power bills

Posted April 5, 2012

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— State lawmakers offered no relief Thursday to the residents of 32 cities in eastern North Carolina who have to pay exorbitant electric bills because of bad municipal investments decades ago.

For years, homeowners and businesses in the cities and towns served by the Eastern Municipal Power Agency have paid sky-high electric bills, with 38 cents of every dollar going to pay off the $2.1 billion that cities owe on their share of power plants.

"When you have a utility bill that's higher than your mortgage, that's crazy," said Renet McQueen, who pays $600 in an average month for the electricity her small Red Springs home consumes.

"We're not getting any help. We're just being robbed, eyes wide open," McQueen said.

The problem started during the energy crisis in the 1970s. A group of cities and towns borrowed money to buy shares in power plants to guarantee a steady supply of electricity, but the cost of those shares – and the resulting debt – soared.

Greenville owes the most at $340 million, followed by Rocky Mount at $337 million and Wilson at $327 million.

"The debt is a large percentage of our cost, and we continue to work on that as part of our plan every day," said Ken Raber, senior vice president of ElectriCities, the group that manages the Eastern Municipal Power Agency.

Lawmakers studying the municipal power issue have found no solutions. Refinancing the debt would cost more in the long run, they said, and any attempt to sell off the power plant shares is on hold until Progress Energy and Duke Energy can complete a merger, which has been stalled by regulatory hurdles.

Municipal power customers seek relief from high electric bills Municipal power customers seek relief from high electric bills

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said the state won't pick up the tab for the debt either.

"I don't mean the state doesn't have a role to play, but in terms of the state coming in with a bailout, that is absolutely not something that I would support," Newton said.

A legislative panel recommended one change to state law that the General Assembly could address when it reconvenes in May. Under the proposal, any proceeds from the sale of the power plant shares would have to be used to lower electric rates.

For residents, however, that plan doesn't go far enough. McQueen said high electric bills are bankrupting families and discouraging businesses from bringing in jobs to the cities and towns served by the power agency.

"They're not listening to us. We're what matters. It's not the VPs at ElectriCities. It's not the president of ElectriCities. It's not those guys sitting up there. It's us, because we're having to pay this every month," she said.

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  • redrubberball1 Apr 6, 2012

    "redrubberball1, what is illogical is that entire communities are suffering electric bills that total in the hundreds - not just a few that you think will be helped with insulation."

    It's more than insulation. It's how many devices in your home that are running and unattended. It's incandescent bulbs instead of low energy useage flourescents. It's how high you run the thermostat in the winter and how low in the summer. It's how many times one stands in front of the fridge with the door open just pondering a movement. It's these and a lot more things. In this climate zone, experts now recommend R49-R65 insulation in the attic. It's keeping blinds more nearly closed on the south side of your house in summer and open in the sunny daytime in winter. It's storm windows and doors and keeping inner doors closed more often. Etc, etc, etc.

  • redrubberball1 Apr 6, 2012

    Actually there are many folks in those cities that have fairly reasonable useage patterns and bills. You don't hear from them because they don't complain. They control their useage. If you could actually nail down some of the complainers you'd find that they don't know anything about their bills except "they're too high". They cannot demonstrate any knowledge about their useage or patterns of useage. They just complain.

  • venitapeyton Apr 6, 2012

    redrubberball1, what is illogical is that entire communities are suffering electric bills that total in the hundreds - not just a few that you think will be helped with insulation.

  • redrubberball1 Apr 6, 2012

    "insulation was not the issue"

    Considering that heating and cooling constitutes 60% or more of most electric bills, I'd say insulation is a big part of the issue.

  • redrubberball1 Apr 6, 2012

    "And, if a parent signed for an adult child, then the parents' power would be turned OFF if the child was behind in payments (despite parents' being paid)."

    That has nothing to do with electric rates. Logic works very well with these differences in rates and usage patterns.

  • venitapeyton Apr 6, 2012

    redrubberball1, logic doesn't work with this problem. I worked in Ayden (Pitt Co) in the mid 90s, and insulation was not the issue. And, if a parent signed for an adult child, then the parents' power would be turned OFF if the child was behind in payments (despite parents' being paid).

    Folks also should look at is which politicians get campaign funds from ElectriCities.

  • redrubberball1 Apr 6, 2012

    An average customer of Progress Energy using 1000 KWh per month, average throughout the year, pays $120 mo. The same average user would pay an Electricities provider about $150 mo. Yes, it is higher but not to the point that I would describe as "being robbed" or "sky high" or "exorbitant". Exorbitant bills are caused by waste, big waste.

  • redrubberball1 Apr 6, 2012

    Electricities member cities charge perhaps 30% more than Progress Energy. My average bill thru the year is $81 per month, for an average used 675 KWh, per month. In Wilson and Rocky Mount, my bill would be about $105. Yes, it's higher than mine now but hardly what I'd describe as "exorbitant" or "sky high" or "being robbed". Truth be told, many folks waste a great deal of electricity and resort to hysteria and point to the power provider instead of looking in the mirror. Conservation of electricity can actually be fun and allow you to spend that money elsewhere in your life, without cramping your lifestyle. Try it!

  • Tax Man Apr 6, 2012

    I would definitely move out of that area! Move to some place that has Progress for the supplier and pay high rates, but not that high! Avoid Duke though as they are creeping up!

  • dollibug Apr 6, 2012

    +++++They need to see if Obama will bail them out too.
    DontLikeTheSocialistObama

    Yep....he bailed everyone else out....he should also bail these people out as well.....it is a shame when NC LAWMAKERS can not find a SOLUTION TO ANYTHING....TIME TO REPLACE ALL OF THEM TOO....

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