Thursday, October 27, 2005

Utility concerned about collections in winter

Staff Writer

Tom Boone, general manager of Holly Springs Utility Department, said he is worried how those on fixed incomes are going to pay high utility bills this winter. The September bill from Tennessee Valley Authority in September was $1.5 million, up from about $1.1 million for the month in past years, he said.

Boone told the board of aldermen last week he wants a policy that insists all customers pay their bills in a timely manner so the department has money to pay TVA, the electricity wholesaler for Holly Springs Utility Department.

He said the elderly and those on fixed incomes should prepare for higher heating costs by conserving power. Insulation of windows and doors to block drafts, heating only one room, turning the thermostat down when possible and wearing extra clothing during cold weather days are measures he suggested.

“We are going to have to get used to hardships,” Boone said. “They’re coming.”

Mayor Andre’ DeBerry agreed that conservation measures are a good idea, but brought up the matter of flexibility with customers who are in arrears on their bills.

“It is better to extend days than cut them off,” he said.

DeBerry said the elected officials bear some responsibility for the cash reserve at the utility by delaying utility rate increases which allowed cash reserves to dwindle.

“I am not going to say the problems are all at the feet of the people who are not paying bills on time,” he said.

Boone said the mayor should not be a go-between for individuals who are about to have their electricity cut off but rather those individuals should negotiate with the customer service department.

DeBerry shot back that the utility should do a better job of customer service and refer individuals to community services or some organization that helps individuals with bills.

Boone said Catholic Services, which has helped individuals with utility bills in past years, had advised it would not take referrals for customer assistance from Holly Springs Utility Department this year.

“Most of the utilities I know about are taking that $1 donation,” Boone said, referring to Plus 1 type programs some utilities have in place to accept $1 donations for customers. The utility then turns over the donated funds to some type of community service non-profit organization to distribute to qualifying applicants.

DeBerry said he is concerned about legalities of the city handling donations. When donations are collected by a utility they become public funds, he argued.

“How do we get around that (legal questions)?” Boone asked.

DeBerry urged Boone to find some type of private entity to partner with the utility to distribute donations to needy customers.

“All I am saying is we need to please expedite this,” said Boone. “The time has arrived and we (the utility) also must collect our bills and pay our bills.”

Alderman Tim Liddy asked whether the utility has a written policy and procedure to work with customers who say they cannot pay.

The cut-off point for electricity comes 15 days after the due date of the bill, Boone said.

“So the ones (delinquent bills) over $1,000 last month were accumulated?” Liddy asked.

“So, you have a delinquent debt and then a new bill and we are saying where is the cut-off?” asked alderman Nancy Hutchens.

DeBerry said when people call him, they are usually asking for an extension of the cut-off of their power for a few days.

“Costs have gone up,” DeBerry said.

“Costs have gone up for you and me and everybody else,” Boone said.

DeBerry reiterated that the customer service department should do more planning and not act solely as a bill collector.

“We need to start yesterday,” said Boone.

Hutchens said she would like to see the utility come up with a standard procedure for giving extensions that is fair to all.

She also receives requests from constituents for a few days extension. The utility department needs a plan whereby customers who are current on their bill can ask for an extension for up to a given number of days, Hutchens said.

“You have to be compassionate, but at the same time you have to have a plan,” Liddy said.

“Many people are suffering; I’m not saying we’re some type of Salvation Army, but I hope we try to set up something to direct people to get assistance,” said DeBerry. “I think the city should have a mechanism in place.”

Boone said cut-offs are the method of last resort for collecting bad accounts.

“But again, we’ve got bills to pay and they have got to pay their bills,” he said.

In a separate interview after the meeting, Dee Miller, office manager, said she agreed with the mayor that the utility department needs to focus more on customer service. She said Boone’s concerns were about cash flow and that it will take a while to build cash reserves from the utility rate increase that went into effect in October.

“The majority of our customers pay their bills and I expect they will continue to,” she said. “There are a few customers who are behind on their bills regularly and once their balance builds up it is harder for them to pay.”

Service agencies weigh in - Holly Springs Catholic Social Services

Sr. Joel Curcio with Catholic Social Services (CSS) in Holly Springs said her organization wants to do more with one-on-one education to help people learn how to budget their income.

“We have just been inundated with utility requests over the last year,” she said. “Almost 85 percent of our donations go to paying utility companies, so, we are looking for other ways of helping.”

CSS now is helping people find work, offering credit counselling, budget planning and financial planning in lieu of making direct handouts for utility bills, she said.

CSS held a utility class and two winterizing classes in September and October, but the classes were not well attended, Curcio said. So those instructions will be given in a one-on-one basis.

“So, when we do some planning and case management, we will try to place our dollars where it will make the most impact for the individual,” she said, “on financial planning, education, referrals and one-on-one.”

She noted that formula federal assistance programs use to help with winter heating costs for low-income excludes Mississippi from most funds because the state does not get that cold.

CSS would be interested in working on the problem with a coalition, she said.

“If there is a movement for a coalition, Catholic Social Services of Holly Springs would be willing to step into that,” she said.

“Our objective is to move people out of poverty and for them to learn how to help themselves, not just to pay bills,” she said. “Just putting plastic or insulation, throwing a rug in front of the door or by the window sill and cutting down the thermostat can be major savings,” she said.

Plus 1 program

Lynn Robbins, manager with the electric department in Oxford, said his utility has a dollar extra program in place.

“If your city aldermen decree, it is a voluntary amount,” Robbins said. The donations are turned over to a public agency which takes referrals for help with utility bills, he said.

“That takes the utility out of the picture in choosing who gets help,” he said. “It is a good program and helps a lot of folks. You have to promote it in the community.”

Robbins said Oxford Electric also is a member of the TVA and Holly Springs would have the same software for accepting donations on electricity bills as Oxford does.

He said the customer signs a form which allows the donation of $1 a month to be added to the utility bill.

Because of the paperwork involved, Oxford likes a donation pledge for a year, he said.

The Salvation Army administers the Plus 1 program for Oxford Electric, Robbins said.

Northeast Mississippi Community Services

Steve Gaines, executive director of NEMCS, said his organization has the expertise to be a partner in a Plus 1 type program.

“We would love to do it,” he said. “We could certainly do that. We would set up a separate financial accounting program and our people could screen applicants.”

Gaines said his agency has a Low Income House Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for Marshall, Prentiss, Tishomingo, and Alcorn counties.

United Community Action handles the same program for Benton and Tippah counties, he said.

Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association

Memphis Light Gas and Water operates a Plus 1 residential assistance program. Donations are funnelled into MIFA to pay utility services for people in need. MLGW customers fund the program either through one-time donations or monthly donations of $1 collected through the monthly utility billing system at MLGW.

The program offers one-time, stop gap help to individuals. The program helps only the most needy because of limited funds - typically about 140 families, according to information available on the MLGW web site.

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