Thursday, March 20, 2014
HSUD customers can donate to Plus 1
By SUE WATSON
In one of the coldest winters in decades, many people experienced utility bills sometimes 20 percent higher than usual, said D. Miller, with Holly Springs Utility Department.
She said this brings to mind the need to publicize HSUD’s Plus 1 program, in which customers can donate an extra dollar a month or so to help those less fortunate to pay their utilities.
The money a customer donates to Plus 1 goes to Catholic Charities, which then puts the money into a fund to help customers with utility bills, Miller said. HSUD merely collects the money and passes it on, she said.
To date, since May 2013, only 22 customers have signed up to donate and the figure is often $1 a month, sometimes $2 or $5, she said. In all, Plus 1 has collected $271 from HSUD customers. Miller said HSUD cuts a check for Catholic Charities every quarter or so.
HSUD does not promote it and cannot use electric rate payer dollars to promote it, Miller said.
Forms to donate to Plus 1 can be filled out online at www.hsutilities.com or customers can pick up a form at HSUD’s office and fill it out at the front desk.
“It’s a good program and we really do need more customers to participate,” Miller said.
The mayor’s ministerial advisory counsel is also going to try to get the word out so people, who want to, can donate to Plus 1, she said.
GE’s automated metering is expected to be in place by the end of the year, according to general manager Don Hollingsworth. Miller said HSUD’s billing will be so much more accurate when the new meters are online. HSUD already has smart meters at some industrial sites that have helped a lot with billing, she said.
Complaints about high bills
Miller said the largest complaint at the utility is high bills. The biggest reasons for the high bills are heating and cooling costs, she said.
“This winter is one of the coldest winters in decades, and because of that, the rates did not go up, but the usage did,” Miller said.
That means if a customer sets the thermostat at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, it will take more electricity in a cold winter to maintain the house at that temperature.
“People do not realize they are using more energy,” she said. “We are charging them for what they use. The colder it is, the more energy you have to use to keep your house at 68 degrees.”
Requests for more time to pay
Miller described how a customer can get help temporarily with a bill. If a bill is due February 1, the cutoff date is February 16, or 15 days later, Miller said. If the customer does not pay the bill by the cutoff date, he or she may come in before the cutoff date and request more time to get the bill paid.
“They come out here and talk to Willie Mallory and he will determine if the customer qualifies for an extension,” Miller said.
A request for an extension must be made in writing at HSUD. The customer can request an additional 15 days to pay off the previous balance, she said.
On March 12, HSUD had 67 meter cutoff orders in the city.
“These bills were due February 5 with a cutoff day of February 20,” Miller said. “And here it is March 12 and it is past the extension time.”
HSUD has a policy on cutting off utilities. A customer in arrears on a bill will not be cut off before a holiday, or on a Friday, or on a very hot or very cold day.
“We are trying to follow our policies now to the letter,” Miller said. “Every once in a while we make an exception, but rarely.”
Miller said 67 cutoffs in one day is not a typical day.
“We didn’t cut off many in December, January and February because of our cold-weather policy, so we have to catch up (on collections of overdue bills),” Miller said.
The majority of the 67 people due for cutoff March 12 will pay their bills, Miller said. Those who do not pay will likely have moved and left the bill unpaid or have moved in with a family member or friend until they can do better.
Mallory, who came on in December as customer service liaison at HSUD, said he sees a steady line of customers with problems and the number varies daily.
“On cutoff days, you can have 25 to 30 people come in,” he said. “Some have been cut off for nonpayment. Others are trying to make arrangements before their utilities are cut off. In a lot of instances, we can give them an extension for a few more days to try to get up the money.
“We do know this fact, this year the bills are higher than before due to weather conditions. There is no warning (inserted in the billing envelope).”
Mallory said the media helps with warning people about high utility bills if they do not take measures to conserve.
The fee to have utilities cut back on is $20. But after a time, if HSUD has to pay overtime to reconnect utilities, the reconnect fee can be higher, he said. Even double.
Customers are encouraged to come in by 4 p.m. and pay the bill to avoid employee overtime cost, he said.
“Even though we have had a cold, cold winter, the people in Marshall County are resilient once we explain why their bill is so high,” Mallory said. “Meter readings are about 99 percent accurate at HSUD, right at the national average.”
Mallory said sometimes the meter reader makes a mistake and a customer can call and ask for the meter to be reread if a bill is outrageous compared to what he or she is used to getting.
Mary Simmons is one example. She received an electric bill that should have been around $70 but was $500, Mallory said. So, Simmons went to the board of aldermen to ask why the bill was so high. The electric bill was found to be in error due to a mistake in the meter reading, he said.
Simmons called The South Reporter to say that her electric bill after the meter was reread turned out to be $68, not $500.
The meter readers go back around and reread meters in the early morning, so it takes about 24 hours to get a reading error corrected, Mallory said.
“It happens because we are human, but there is very little of it (errors in meter reading) that happens,” he said. “Normally, we catch it right here in the building. We thank the customer for calling in. We want to catch it. We agree to reread it and we catch the problem.”
TVA press releases
TVA issues press releases when it expects lower temperatures (or higher ones in the summer) to raise awareness of increased power demand. In a January 22 press release, TVA said it issues power supply alerts or conservative operations alerts to its local power companies and directly served industrial customers, to insure an uninterrupted supply of electricity to the nine million residents in the Valley.
Customers are encouraged during these times to take steps to lower their power bills by reducing their own electricity use. Tips for conserving energy can be found on TVA’s Energyright Solutions website. One of the simplest ways to conserve electricity is to lower the thermostat a few degrees in winter or raise it a few degrees in summer. Such measures can result in a big savings on a monthly bill.
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