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POWER STRUGGLE: Senator Thinks Lower Bills Possible

The state senator who is co-chairing a legislative committee looking into the high utility rates charged by ElectriCities says he believes it's possible for legislative action to lower the bills of those customers. ElectriCities serves 32 municipalities in Eastern Carolina.

Senator Buck Newton (R-Wilson) spoke to Heather King on WITN News at Sunrise Friday in an exclusive live interview.

"There's a lot of reason to be hopeful," Senator Newton said. "If we can find the right formula that we agree is the right formula, then I think we can get something done."

The formula Senator Newton speaks of is finding someone to buy some of ElectriCities assets in three nuclear facilities. The investment made decades ago has not paid off the way the utility hoped, and the massive debt gets passed on to customers every month in the form of higher utility bills.

Newton said it would be difficult to find a buyer interested in those assets.

The first meeting of the Municipal Power Agency Relief subcommittee was Tuesday in Raleigh. Newton says the committee plans to meet again in January with two more hearings planned after that.

When asked how long it could take before customers could see lower bills, Newton said it would be at least a year. "And that's if everything goes just right. We may be several years away, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be working on it," Newton said.

Once the committee completed its work and introduced legislation to lower bill of ElectriCities customers, the committee's focus would shift to convincing enough members of the General Assembly to supporting the measure. "I think those that understand the problem will be behind it," Newton said. "People not in this area aren't familiar with the problem. This is suffocating our economy."

WITN will continue to cover the work of this legislative committee and its potential impacts for Eastern Carolinians.

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Tuesday marked the first of what will be at least two meetings of the Municipal Power Agency Relief subcommittee in the state capitol. Customers vented their frustrations and demand action.

Many residents and business owners in Eastern Carolina are dealing with outrageous power bills.Tuesday was a first step in trying to do something about them, specifically the rates for those in the 32 municipalities that make up the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency, managed by ElectriCities.

One by one, business owners approached the podium inside the legislative office building Tuesday in Raleigh.

"We've had industries leave Wilson like Mother Buttercup and and Lynnpack and they diplomatically said we cannot compete in the industries we're in with Wilson electric rates,"
said Billy Lamm of Lamm & Company Partners in Wilson.

It's the same story for residents struggling with astronomical bills.

The subcommittee is charged with trying to gain a better understanding of how to lower electric rates.

"When you have a community like Wilson, Rocky Mount, New Bern, or Greenville, and you have millions and millions of dollars being sucked out of the economy month after month after month, year after year- it takes its toll." said Sen. Buck Newton, (R) Subcommittee Co-chair

Thomas Joyner is president of Nash Produce. He says he's paid several bills that were more than $100,000 to the City of Rocky Mount. When he expanded his property, he decided to get power with Progress Energy--who had lines nearby.

"My rate to the city of Rocky Mount is 11.6 cents, my rate to progress energy is 6.6. Had I used the rate that I paid to Progress Energy for what I paid to the City of Rocky Mount last year I would have saved $170,000."

A big reason for the higher rates is the nearly $2.3 billion dollar debt the 32 municipalities share, which won't be eliminated until 2026.

"Before you turn on a power switch in Rocky Mount- 38% of our bill goes to debt-that's the facts-so before you use 1 kilowatt of energy-you're still subsidizing a decision that was made 30 years ago. So, help us please figure out how we can deal with that issue and how we can together keep our businesses competitive and if the businesses can't compete-what do you think about the fragile residents?" asked Rocky Mount City Councilman Reuben Blackwell

The committee plans to meet again, and bring in members of the power community.

If you have questions for the committee, we want to hear them. The chairman of that committee, Senator Buck Newton of Wilson will be live on WITN News at Sunrise Friday taking your questions. You can head to witn.com and submit questions by clicking on the ElectriCities story.

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The high utility rates that members of the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency pay, which is managed by ElectriCities, will be under the microscope beginning Tuesday.

It was last spring as part of our "Power Struggle" series that we reported customers in those 32 Eastern Carolina municipalities are paying as much as 35-percent more than other utility customers. A big reason for that is the debt from buying into nuclear facilities decades ago.

Studying the rates ElectriCities members pay is the aim of a new General Assembly committee that meets Tuesday in Raleigh for the first time.

ElectriCities CEO Graham Edwards told us during our previous reports that he was not opposed to the idea. "Ya know the legislature can study rates in any way, shape or form they like. And we will be there to help them and support them anyway we can."

Edwards has also recently sent a letter to the committee saying they will work closely with the committee members , including openly sharing financial information and other data. You can read that letter by clicking on the related link below.

The committee will consider the feasibility of refinancing or restructuring the debt of the power agencies and look into the option of selling assets to reduce the debt and lower electric rates.

We'll keep you posted Tuesday on what happens at this first meeting.


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