Citizens talk utilitiesPublished 2:27pm Saturday, April 6, 2013
Editors Note: This is the second in a two part series.
BY ANDREW FAISON/CONTRIBUTING WRITER
FRANKLIN—The Tidewater News sat down recently with members of Concerned Citizens Against High Utility Bills including group spokesperson Dr. Linwood Johnson, Herman Parker, Charles Grant, Brother Bashir and Joe Ingram, in a continuing endeavor to give citizens a voice in the issues over escalating utility costs.
The Tidewater News staff included Associate Publisher Tony Clark, Managing Editor Lucy Wallace and Contributing Writer Andrew Faison. Questions were posed to the citizen representatives on what they want from the city moving forward. The dialogue among the citizens brought forth five main points the group felt were the key concerns (highlighted in bold).
Third-party investigations of meters, electric grid
“The citizens right now don’t trust the city,” said Joe Ingram. “They have said at a council meeting that they don’t have the equipment they need to do the testing. That is why we want someone else to look into this.”
Group spokesperson Dr. Linwood Johnson notes that when the group asked for an initial investigation they were referring to bringing in a third-party for the investigation.
“All City Council has done so far is directed the City Manager to go out and work with people one-on-one,” Johnson said. “That is not going to work because that is a long, long process. This is not a one-on-one problem — it’s a group problem.”
The group noted the electrical grid itself has not been evaluated because if the electric current is not properly coming from the pole, the meter could possibly read electricity that is not being used.
“After doing research – that could very well be the case because the electrical grid has not been checked out in years,” Johnson said.
The group notes this third-party investigation has to be done before the one-on-one inspections of homes are performed.
“You will never find the solution to the problem without performing these steps first,” Johnson said.
The group notes that the city does not have the proper equipment to do home energy audits.
“The city needs the blower door equipment like the STOP (Southeastern Tidewater Opportunity Project) organization and Parker Darden has,” Johnson said. “The city needs the equipment to do these studies properly. You can not just look at a house and tell where air may or may not be leaking.”
Mayor, Council need to be more involved
The group feels Franklin City Council needs to more directly deal with the people and hear the people.
“We didn’t put the city manager in office, we put city council in office,” said Dr. Linwood Johnson.
“The mayor told us to work with the city manager,” said Joe Ingram. “The city manager works for City Council but City Council works for us the citizens of Franklin.”
The group noted that even after inviting all members of council to their Ward meetings, no council member has attended.
“We want to know their individual positions on the issue,” Johnson. “Not just to direct the City Manger to do something.
“We want to be on the agenda for a city council meeting to have an open discussion,” Johnson said.
When originally bringing his problem before the Mayor and City Council Herman Parker was directed to present his problem to City Manager Randy Martin.
“She said she had other concerns and directed me to Mr. Martin,” he said.
Parker believes that there are certain people that receive different light bill rates.
“Its because of this I want to know why the bigwigs of the city: the Mayor, City Manager or City Attorney are not complaining about a high light bill,” he said.
The group wants to know what the Mayor, Vice-Mayor and each of the other council members thoughts and plans are to resolve this issue. “Because all of them are in charge of the electrical department,” Johnson said.
“Also because this is not a Northside versus Southside of Franklin problem,” said Joe Ingram. “This is this is truly a city problem. We have found electric issues all over the city.”
The group notes there are some houses in the city that may need weatherization.
“Not everyone of the homes need that,” Johnson said.
The group also feels that City Council needs to be more proactive in bringing in new industry to diversify the tax revenue.
“We are currently looking at a city that is dependent on its citizens for survival instead of industry,” Johnson said. “That is too much of a burden for our citizens to bear.”
Meters should be calibrated more often
The group wants the electric meters tested more than once every 10 years.
“That is entirely too long,” said Joe Ingram. “The police calibrate their radar gun every day – that is a measuring tool. A car is maintained more than once every 10 years. So why is it that our meters are only maintained once ever 10 years.”
Ingram admits when he first got his first high bill he thought something might have been wrong with his home.
“After comparing with my neighbors, we noticed everybody’s bill was high,” Ingram said. “We noticed that everyone in my neighborhood had a similar bill – same range for both usage and cost. So there has to be a problem with the system somewhere.”
Ingram noted in order to reduce his bill he has gone out of town for two weeks with everything unplugged.
“I came back and my bill was still as high as it was the month before,” he said. “All these kilowatts are not being used.”
Charles Grant notes that in his four to five times of approaching Franklin Power and Light no one has acknowledged to checking the meter.
“If someone is going to come out and check our meters from Power and Light, the person that is going to stop by, you would think would get in contact with me to let me know they are there,” Grant said.
The group noted on the electro-mechanical meters there is a screw labeled F/S.
“The screw can be adjusted to speed up or slow down a meter,” Johnson said. “If the case is taken off it can be manipulated. Some of the meters I have seen personally – that screw has been pointing to the F mark.” He indicated the F stands for fast and the S for slow.
(See Tampering with the F or S screws on old meters for more coverage.)
Split the Utility Bill and late fee
The group notes they want to see the utility bills split up into separate bills and dissolve the $50 fee associated with restoring service.
“People are saying don’t turn my lights off just because I don’t pay my water bill,” said Joe Ingram.
The group noted in the City of Suffolk all the utilities were on separate bills.
“Where as all of ours are together,” Ingram said.
The group feels because of this some citizens light service has been cut off just for owing money to another utility service.
“When your electricity is cut off you must pay a $50 dollar charge just to have service restored,” Johnson said.
“Dominion does not charge this fee,” he added.
Allow the citizens over two extensions a year
The group wants the city to allow its citizens more than two extensions per year on their utility bills
“Because of economic circumstances citizens need more than two,” said Dr. Linwood Johnson. “People can not keep up with their bills.”
The group notes there are a number of senior citizens living on a fixed income and cannot afford all of the utility cost increases.
Trying to conserve on his electric bill has been a goal of retiree Charles Grant.
“I have winterized my house with storm windows and new doors,” Grant said. “My wife and I have gone to the point of living in one room during the daytime and only use heat in that one room.”
“Yet no matter what I do my bill keeps going up,” he continued.
“There are a number of individuals who have not been able to buy groceries in months,” Johnson stressed. “Some can’t even buy the necessary medicine they need.”
Social Services provides
assistance for 1,645
FRANKLIN—In 2012 Social Services provided a total $330,010.79 in customer utility assistance for 1,645 customers in Franklin.
These funds came from the federally funded energy assistance program. There are three separate programs: heating assistance, crisis assistance and cooling assistance.
“The programs are almost specifically income based,” said Director of Social Services Alan Hogge. “So it is a low-income home energy assistance program. This program is not unique to Franklin — it is in all the areas.”
Hogge notes that the Crisis Program is different.
“For that program there has to be a heating emergency,” he said. “Usually individuals don’t have a heating system.”
Crisis assistance just recently closed its application process for the year. Cooling assistance program will be the next to open on June 15.
“One of the qualifying factors for that program is there has to be either a child under the age of six or an individual that is disabled,” Hogge said.
Hogge notes that in the previous winter months some customers’ entire bill was paid.
“Some of those that had lower bills, their bills were completely paid,” Hogge said. “Depending on the federal formula some individuals do receive more, but again that is all based on the federal formula. We don’t even know what the formula is ahead of time.”
Hogge does note however that the remainder of the bill has to be paid by the individual.
“That is up to the city, oil company or whoever the citizen has to pay. It goes through the same process as if someone who didn’t pay their bill.”
“We will pay our portion though,” he continued. “In some cases if an individual’s bill was $200 and we paid $250, the additional $50 would carry over to help them the next month.”
Those eligible can apply online at www.commonhelp.virginia.gov or at Franklin Social Services office at 306 N. Main St.
Transfer of funds explained
Franklin City Manager Randy Martin further explained the transfer of funds the city receives from the local utility. In Wednesday’s Tidewater News article “An Electric Explanation”, Martin said if Franklin were to do away with Franklin Power & Light, there would no longer be a transfer of money and property taxes would go up.
Franklin has had its own public utility since 1892 and the transfer has been n place since the beginning, although the level has changed over the years.
The city’s general fund currently receives a $1.4 million transfer from the electric fund for the purpose of offsetting city expenses.
“Without this transfer we would have to raise current taxes by $0.24 cents per $100 valuation. The city benefits from the transfer, to help fund the general fund.” If the city did not receive this transfer of money into the general fund, the tax rate would rise from the current $.90 to $1.14.
Martin noted in the previous article that the city could look into raising the tax rate to lower electric rates but that it would have to be done during the budget process.