Power Struggle Part 1: ElectriCities Rates, Governor Calls Her Bill "Exorbitant"

There is a growing frustration all across Eastern Carolina over high utility bills, in particular from ElectriCities customers.

ElectriCities is the umbrella organization that oversees management of what's known as the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency made up of 32 municipalities across Eastern Carolina. Collectively they provide power to 268,000 customers. But they're paying more than customers at Progress, Duke and even electric co-ops.

The CEO of ElectriCities tells WITN the bills are as much as 35 percent higher. It has many residents fed up. Even Governor Beverly Perdue is questioning her personal bill at her New Bern home. So why are the bills so high and is anything being done about it?

Lois McClellan of New Bern was happy to get out and work in the yard recently on a nice day where it wasn't too hot or too cold. That also meant she didn't have to worry about spending money by turning on the heat or the air conditioning. "That's a big chunk of the budget, the utilities." Neighbor Durwood Johnson, who's retired and on a fixed income, feels the same. "I only have 1,600 square feet of floor space, heated space, it runs about $500 a month year round and that's a lot."

New Bern Mayor Lee Bettis says he's seen bills much higher than Johnson's, like $1,000 a month for a single wide and more. "The highest one I ever heard is $1,500 a month for an electric bill."

Even Governor Beverly Perdue is complaining about her bill. In March of 2009, she wrote then New Bern Mayor Tom Bayliss a personal letter, saying her most recent ElectriCities bill, "Sounds exorbitant." She goes on to say, "That bill was $537.57 for a house I have not been in since the preceding Christmas and where the thermostat was set at 64 degrees."

The governor's office tells me Perdue, speaking as a private citizen and resident of New Bern, believes the rates she and other ElectriCities customers pay are too high.

So just how many other customers feel the same way as the governor and have been complaining about ElectriCities rates? The governor's office says it doesn't have jurisdiction over such complaints. So what about the North Carolina Utilities Commission? Commission officials say they don't have oversight over ElectriCities and therefore don't handle those complaints. They referred us to the North Carolina Attorney General's Office. But representatives of the attorney general's office said they don't handle such complaints either and referred us to the North Carolina Rural Electrification Authority. And guess what? Officials at the authority say they don't handle those complaints either.

Graham Edwards, the CEO of ElectriCities, says aside from complaining to the city where a customer gets their bill, the place which sets the rates, there is no independent oversight. In response to a question that there is not an outside agency that regulates the municipalities that set the rates or ElectriCities, Edwards said, "That is correct."

While Edwards recommends customers take their complaints to city officials like the governor did, the governor's office says the letter she sent had no effect on her bill, or rates for other customers...bills that Edwards acknowledges are higher than what other power customers in North Carolina pay. "If you look at the cities in Eastern North Carolina that are members of the power agency, 20 to 35 percent higher than what Progress Energy would charge."

Recent rate increases contribute to the higher bills, but you have to go back decades to find the biggest reason. That's when ElectriCities bought into the construction of the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant in Wake County. Edwards says four units were to be built at a cost of one billion dollars. The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility changed that and costs skyrocketed. Instead, they got one unit for four billion dollars. "It's easy to Monday morning quarterback but the folks that made that decision back in the early 80's, they did the right thing at the time. It's just it didn't turn out to be as good a deal as we thought."

And it's a deal customers today continue to pay for in the form of a 2.4 billion dollar debt. That debt is spread out over the 32 municipalities and passed on to its customers. Greenville's share is $364 million, $361 million in Rocky Mount, $350 million for Wilson, $196 million for Kinston, and $144 million for New Bern, just to name a few. That debt won't be paid off for another fifteen years.

New Bern Mayor Lee Bettis says if something isn't done about the rates the entire region could suffer. "People won't be able to move here, people won't be able to stay here, businesses won't locate here."

Residents like Durwood Johnson and Lois McClellan just want something done. Johnson says, "Ya know, I've been here since 74 and it's a fine town and I enjoy it but I do hate paying this high bill that I have to pay every month." McClellan added, "I wish something could be done. I don't know what, but there should be a solution."

WITN did ask the governor's office, in light of her sending that letter, if she is doing anything to try and lower rates. The answer was no. However, others are taking action and we'll take a look at that tomorrow at six.

If you are an ElectriCities customer, we would like to hear from you about your bill. You can send an email to dave.jordan@witn.com or contact him on facebook.

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