Wednesday, July 15, 2009
A forum on city utility bills at Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church Tuesday night included intense public criticism of Elizabeth City’s practice of using a $1 million a year in electricity revenues to pay for general city services.
The forum included audience questions and presentations by city staff on the home energy audit program and the city’s relationship with ElectriCities and the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency.
The Rev. Walter Smith, the church’s pastor, said many in his congregation suffered last winter because of high electric bills. He also said he and some church members were concerned that landlords were not being held accountable for making houses more energy-efficient.
The crowd of more than 125 was palpably disturbed about high utility bills, frequently citing examples of friends and neighbors with $900 and $1,000 bills and elderly residents having to choose between paying for food, medicine and electricity.
Bobby Vaughan conceded the city was “pretty well locked in” to the contract through ElectriCities. But the city’s use of electric rates “to raise funds for other purposes” drew criticism from the community leader.
“It’s being used for other things,” he said, referring to electric fund revenue. The city can change the way it uses profits from the electric fund, he said.
Olson said because of rising wholesale electric rates, the portion of electric spending that the city has any discretion over is dwindling — from 26 percent in 2006-07 to 17 percent currently.
The city really only controls $4.5 million of a $36 million electric budget, Olson said.
Responding to an audience question, Olson said the city last year transferred $1.05 million — about 4 percent of its electric revenues — from the electric fund to the general fund. The funds were used to subsidize quality-of-life programs in the city such as police protection, he said.
Olson said the transfer is a way to charge people who live just outside the city and are city electric customers — but don’t pay city taxes — for services they benefit from but otherwise wouldn’t pay for.
He also said the N.C. Local Government Commission recommends a transfer from the electric fund to the general fund.
Olson also found himself having to defend his votes, as a member of the NCEMPA Board of Commissioners, in favor of the wholesale electric rate increases that lead to retail rate increases for city utility customers. He said it’s his responsibility to vote based on the information provided to him by the NCEMPA staff.
Atkinson said the city’s elected officials have supported Olson because they believe he’s acting in the best interests of the city.
In response to persistent questioning from audience member Richard Gilbert, Olson said he briefs council on issues related to wholesale rates but council had never voted on how he should vote as an NCEMPA commissioner.
Elizabeth City councilors have attended NCEMPA Rate Committee meetings but none are members of the Rate Committee, Olson said.
City Council approves the retail electric rate based on a staff recommendation, Olson explained.
“Your rates are determined by the City Council,” he said.