Photo by Sue WatsonSome HSUD customers line up to ask questions. Responding are Mayor Kelvin Buck and Bill Stone, general manager of HSUD.
Photo by Sue WatsonJohn Faulkner, the city’s chief of staff, and Bill Stone, HSUD general manager, listen to a citizen’s concerns.
High utility bills
Causes of high electric bills for some customers of the Holly Springs Utility Department, explained at an August 20 public meeting, did not appear to be acceptable to most in attendance.
The meeting was held at the Eddie Lee Smith Multi-Purpose Center.
HSUD general manager Bill Stone presented the facts in a PowerPoint presentation, followed by a Q & A session where the public was allowed, one by one, to ask questions and/or express dissatisfaction with the utility department, Stone and Mayor Kelvin Buck.
Accusations were made during the Q & A, moderated by John Faulkner, chief of staff for the mayor, and there were angry outbursts.
Before Stone’s rendition of the facts, Faulkner advised the audience that the meeting would be orderly, “because people deserve to have their questions answered.”
Buck said the meeting, with hundreds in attendance, was “to ensure you we give you the factual information.”
“We’ve taken every possible step to ensure you got the bill for what you used,” the major said. “But, if something is wrong with your bill, as there will be problems from time to time, at no point have I instructed our staff to change the facts.
“The meters we installed were to catch up with modern systems practiced all over the area. At the end of the day, if a person brings a bill with a significant problem, we will review your bill. Our goal is to answer any questions we can. “This is a time to have a reasonable discussion about things important to us.”
As Stone began his presentation, there was a lot of cynicism and heckling from some in the audience.
The first problem surfaced May 25, Stone said, when a cutover to a new data transmission system took place. Shortly afterward a series of storms came through the area knocking out two gateways set on water towers, one in Holly Springs, the other in Benton County.
HSUD attempted to restore the gateways as soon as possible but a second series of storms came through and knocked out the gateways a second time. One gateway located in the Holly Springs Industrial Park remained functional throughout, collecting meter readings from the areas it served.
Stone said after losing two gateways twice, HSUD and General Electric decided the gateways needed adequate grounding to protect them from lightning.
At all times all the automated meters were working and metering power use, Stone said.
Now, the new gateways are up and running and are showing a 90 percent read rate. The system is backfilling its data.
The issue is with billing, Stone said. In June and July some bills were estimated based upon the customer’s two months prior usage.
As a result of the lower-than-expected estimates for those months, the catch-up bill accounted for all electricity metered over the period that had not been paid for. Some individuals actually had overestimated usage and were eligible for a credit.
Stone was heckled loudly after saying no one was billed for utilities they didn’t use.
Customers whose meters communicate through Gateway 2 (Ashland) and Gateway 3 (Eddie Lee Smith Drive) were affected. Those include customers in Red Banks, Mt. Pleasant, Slayden, Taska, Marianna, Lamar, Ashland, Michigan City, Canaan, Snow Lake, Victoria and Lee’s Crossing areas.
HSUD is offering to spread those bills, the catch-up bill, over a two- or three-month period. HSUD cannot by law give a customer free utility services, he said.
Some things the utility hopes to do going forward is to make sure this problem does not recur, be better prepared, and to communicate better with customers.
Q & A remarks
Q. What is TVA doing to make sure this does not happen again?
A. (Stone) The infrastructure is not a TVA issue, but TVA does provide fiber. The infrastructure for the Automated Meter Infrastructure (AMI) is provided to HSUD by General Electric who has a contract with the utility.
Q. Who is responsible for the contract with GE? If you think about it, if a person can’t pay it this month, they can’t pay it next month.
A. (Stone) We are.
Q. Did people make themselves responsible for paying for GE? A lot of people wanted to opt out of the AMI but were not allowed.
A. (Buck) I do not regret it at all. At no point did GE meters misread your usage.
Comment. Your customer service actually sucks. You and the mayor are a liar.
Q. How does the customer know the bills are read accurately?
A. (Stone) HSUD does manual rechecks of meter readings that are called to question. And HSUD may call a customer and ask them to read the meter and tell them what it says. We do spot check behind meters.
Comment. It’s unfortunate we have such an overpowering police presence.
Q. Who is accountable for the system failure, failure to notify the customers of the problem and that the next bill would be increased?
A. (Buck) We are not charging you for more than you used.
Q. My bill doubled. Do I need to expect some money back?
A. (Stone) Your bill was likely high because you are catching up for being under-billed the prior month.
Q. What is the minimum charge and who installed the gateways?
A. (Stone) The minimum bill is $12.15 a month and GE and their contractors installed the meters and network equipment. HSUD agreed with GE to get the system back up and then discuss other costs with GE.
Q. Why do we have to eat this cost when you all messed up?
A. (Stone) We can’t give away electricity under state law. No one is eating any costs. All billing is for electricity that was consumed.
Q. Who is going to pay for my time off from work to go over my bill with HSUD?
Comment. In my company, they eat their mistakes. HSUD is the one that messed up.
Q. How long does it take for HSUD to return a call?
A. (Stone) HSUD tries to return calls the day they come in.
Q. My bill has gone from $100 a month to $800 a month. Either I have a smart meter or I have a dumb meter. Now I am holding my butt tight hoping not to get (power) cut off.
A. (Stone) You were under-billed one or two months.
Comment. My electricity goes off four or five times a day.
Q. I live in a mobile home and my bill has escalated, starting at $250 and now is up to $400 a month.
A. (Stone) Some mobile homes are often not well-insulated and usage can run up.
Ward IV Alderman Christy Owens said she did not think a great number of citizens who turned out for the community meeting got the answers they were looking for – a solution to their specific problem.
“I don’t think everyone in that room will be satisfied with one answer,” she said. “I think specific situations have to be resolved at HSUD, which has all their records, meter readings and history.
“I think there are problems with the product GE provides and that they should have been present to answer questions about their equipment and its functions. It is my understanding that they were invited to the meeting.”
As to the number of customers who experienced underestimates on their bill, Owens said the general manager told her there were less than 1,000 meters that were estimated for the month of June and about 3,000 in July.
She also believes that there has always been a distrust of HSUD by a portion of the public and that the utility has been used by the public as a political wedge at times against elected officials.
“I think this has morphed into a much larger thing than it really is,” she said. “I think the problems at HSUD have been going on for a long time.
“High utility bills have been an issue for as long as I can remember. I also think customers should have been notified sooner about the data collection problem. Lack of trust of the utility department is a long-standing problem in this community and not informing the customers added fuel to the fire.
“I thought Bill and the mayor conducted themselves well. Having someone put their finger in your face and call you a liar is not easy. The City of Holly Springs, the mayor and board of aldermen, Bill Stone and the utility staff are working very hard to correct this problem.”
Alderman at-large Tim Liddy said the meeting was to give out general information, not to solve individual problems of 200 people.
“You can’t solve it in a general meeting,” he said.
Rust College President David Beckley said General Electric should address the equipment failure.
GE needs to get involved and the meter system should be tied to the collectors, he said, that way they both would go down together, he said. And a third problem was that no one knew about the impending problem until it was too late to get the word out.
“Our staff is working with customers on a daily basis since this general meeting, and I have dealt with dozens of them personally,” Stone said. “We are addressing their concerns, making payment arrangements, and for the most part, customers have been very understanding.”
He said HSUD has already cleared up a lot of concerns for its customers.