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Court questions increase in electric bills

Representatives from Kentucky Power Company visited the January meeting of the Letcher Fiscal Court this week and were confronted by angry citizens and court members.

District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming appeared to sum up the feelings of many in the audience Monday night when he told power company officials Greg Sparkman and Bill Bettinazzi that he feels the company, a subsidiary of American Electric Power, has unfairly raised prices and is profit gouging.

“I think you all have screwed the people here for years,” said Fleming. “You do people dirty. You don’t care if coal goes up to $200 a ton (because) you get to stick it to the people.”

Fleming was referring to the power company’s fuel adjustment clause, which enables it to add a charge to the regular power usage costs when the company’s cost for coal goes up. Bettinazzi, a customer service coordinator, told the court the fuel adjustment was just one of three reasons for the unusually high bills being received by Letcher County residents. He said that when coal prices are low, sometimes small credits are given to customers, but since coal prices jumped so high recently the company had to significantly increase the fuel adjustment clause to meet the cost of the price jump.

District Three Magistrate Archie Banks, who has worked in coal sales and trucking for much of his working life, told Bettinazzi he understands the coal situation now, but asked him to explain a similar spike a year ago when coal prices were low. When no explanation was given, Banks said he has several apartments he rents and that he cut the power completely to one as an experiment. He said the empty apartment had the meter removed and the bill still increased from the previous month.

Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward said he wasn’t worried about his own electric bills but was very much concerned about people on fixed incomes faced with having their electricity disconnected because they can’t pay the higher bills.

“My bill is up $158,” said Ward. “I can pay it, but what about those who can’t?”

Banks added, “We have people here who struggle to pay a $12 per month garbage bill.”

“They cut it off,” said District Four Magistrate Keith Adams.

“If we had two power companies, we would pay less,” said Banks.

Several audience members spoke up and said the higher bills were causing them and their neighbors a good deal of grief. Patty Amburgey told the court that she felt the company made bad decisions in buying coal and then passed the buck on to the consumers. Amburgey’s comments came after Bettinazzi explained that AEP companies buy coal several ways, including long-term and short- term contracts and on the spot market. He said that when prices spike as they have in the last year, coal suppliers often break their contracts, pay the penalty. He said AEP paid $158 per ton for over 100,000 tons in a recent situation when it was caught short on supply. Bettinazzi said the companies are required by law to keep a certain amount of coal in reserve.

Kentucky Power Customer and Distribution Services Manager Mary Begley told the court that she could have company officials attend a court meeting to explain the billing but that wasn’t really the area of expertise of those who attended this week’s meeting. She said Sparkman and Bettinazzi were there to talk about Kentucky Power holding energy clinics at Senior Citizens Centers throughout the county to educate consumers on ways to conserve electricity.

One such clinic was held at Ermine on Tuesday. Other seminars were to be at Colson on Wednesday, Jenkins on Thursday (at 10 a.m.), Blackey on Friday (at 9:30 a.m.), and next Tuesday at Neon at 10:30 a.m. The clinics were not advertised in the newspaper.

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