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

Posted April 5, 2012 5:50 p.m. EDT
Updated April 5, 2012 7:21 p.m. EDT

Power lines generic, transmission lines

— 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.

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.