February 23, 2018 11:01:52 AM
Charlie Box didn't expect what he found in his last utility bill.
But Columbus Light and Water officials did.
Box, Ward 3 Columbus city councilman, said he was stunned to find his electric bill for mid-January through mid-February came to $535, almost $350 more than his usual bill and $300 higher than any utility bill he's had since moving into his 2,100-square-foot home in east Columbus 17 years ago.
"I couldn't believe it," Box said. "Something has to be wrong. I know we had cold weather, but it has to be something more than that. Something must be going on, but I can't figure out what it could be."
Box expressed his alarm on his Facebook page, where it attracted comments from others who said their utility bills were suspiciously high.
"About 40 people commented and probably 20 of them said their bills were similar to mine -- $300 higher or more," Box said. "One guy said his bill was $670."
Box, who formerly served on the CLW board, called the utility's director, Todd Gale, looking for an explanation.
"I called Todd and asked him what was going on," Box said. "He checked some stuff, but really he didn't have any answer."
Gale said Box was among numerous customers who reported inordinately high utility bills. The reaction wasn't anything he didn't anticipate, though.
"Two things: I knew the bills would be high and I knew we would hear complaints about them," Gale said. "What I can tell you is that when it you have a day when the high temperature is 9 degrees, people are going to be using power, probably a lot more than they realize. I think that's what's going on here."
Jon Turner, manager for public relations and communications for 4-County Electric Power Association, reported similar complaints.
"The fact that the high bills are across the state just shows it's weather-driven," Turner said. "It's tough for folks and we don't like it, either. So we try every season to warn about the weather and its effects before the bills get too high."
Utility rates in the state are regulated by the Public Service Commission. Brandon Presley, Northern District PSC commissioner and commission president, said no rates have been raised. Defective meters are unlikely to be the culprit either, he said.
"We are dealing with high bill issues across the Northern District and really across Mississippi. And while there may be a very few caused by another problem, the vast majority are because of the cold," Presley said. "When things get as cold as they have been, it doesn't matter how new or efficient your home or your heater is, it has to work a lot more to keep your home warm."
According to meteorological data collected in the Golden Triangle, between Dec. 24 and Jan. 24, temperatures on 22 of 32 days were below average. The low temperature for 11 of those 32 days were in the teens or lower. There were five consecutive days where the temperature never rose above freezing.
Presley said customers for whom the increase in their bills are not weather-related can contact their utility companies, Tennessee Valley Authority (which provides the power the companies deliver to their customers) or the PSC office.
"If we or TVA find that there is reason to get involved, then we certainly will," Presley said.
Gale said customers can also contact CLW to have their meter tested. For $25, CLW will come to the home, install a temporary meter and take the old meter in for testing.
"Our meters are less than two years old, and we can read them remotely and see what's going on," Gale said. "But we're happy to test the meters."
Box said he's not sure what, if anything, to do next.
"Look, I can handle (the higher bill)," Box said. "What I'm worried about is older folks who might be living on a fixed income. A bill like this could really hurt them."
Presley said the utilities are sensitive to those customers' situation.
"The Public Service Commission has worked with utility companies to make sure they all offer some kind of energy efficiency programs for their customers," Presley said. "Many also offer payment options and other programs to help."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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