As temperatures continue to drop, Letcher County residents continue to see the cost of their electric bills go up. Bills for some homeowners have more than doubled from last month’s total.
Ronn Robinson, cooperate communications manager with Kentucky Power Co., acknowledged this week the power company has been receiving calls from customers complaining about higher bills. Robinson said the higher bills are a combination of a rate increase approved during summer and an increase in the amount of electricity being used during this unusually cold and snowy winter.
“What we are finding in most matters is an increase in usage,” said Robinson. “They are using more kilowatt hours to heat their homes.”
Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks and other local officials fought in vain last year to try to convince the Kentucky Public Service Commission to deny the huge rate increase that was eventually approved for Kentucky Power.
Early last year, Banks asked a Letcher County grand jury to investigate citizen complaints that were being leveled against Kentucky Power in the wake of an early-December snowstorm which left more than 7,000 households here without power, some of them for more than four days. Banks said most of the complaints he was hearing then were based on the belief shared by many local residents that Kentucky Power was no longer spending the money necessary to keep its service lines in good operating condition and cleared of small trees.
In June, the Public Service Commission approved a settlement granting a 12.5 percent residential rate hike to Kentucky Power, half of a requested increase that would have caused an average monthly bill to rise by 34 percent. The PSC said at the time that the typical residential customer would see his or her power bill increase about 17 percent to $134 per month.
Robinson said the rate increase went into effect June 29, giving people six months to get used to the hike. He said the average home uses 1,427 kilowatt hours of electricity a month and the rate increase would make the bill go up about $20.
“If they doubled their usage you would see only a $40 increase,” said Robinson.
Robinson said the rate increase played a role, but the majority of the rise in cost is from an increase in usage of power.
“We have to become wise consumers,” said Robinson. “You pay only for what you use. You pay for what you have already used, not what you are going to use. So by that token you can control what you use.”
Robinson reminds customers to turn off lights that aren’t being used, and to unplug cell phone chargers and other electronics when they aren’t being used.
“We understand the bills go up,” said Robinson. “We have to treat (electricity) like the precious resource it is.”
Banks said he began hearing people complain about higher power bills around the Thanksgiving holiday.
“I’ve heard them say they didn’t know how they were going to pay their bills,” said Banks. “They didn’t say what they were going to do without.”
Banks said at least eight people have taken the time to call him and complain about the increase in their bills.
“What it boils down to is that people are having to choose from medicine and food. Then food and heat,” said Banks. “It is just going to get worse.”
Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward said he has received at least 20 phone calls lately from people concerned about the cost increase in their power bills.
“One lady called me and said there was no way she could pay hers,” said Ward. “Her neighbor lives in a two-room house and he told them to just go ahead and disconnect his power because he couldn’t pay it.”
Ward said people mostly are trying to figure out why their bills jumped in dollar amount.
“Bills doubled or tripled,” said Ward. “The only avenue I know to get any relief is through the Public Service Commission.”
Ward said he is urging people to contact the PSC, because that is the agency that regulates the power company rates.
“It is bad,” said Ward. “There is nothing I can do to help other than tell them to call the Public Service Commission.”
Ward said the Letcher Fiscal Court also received a high power bill. The November power bill for the courthouse was $9,330.77 and the December power bill is $22,374.93.
“Our budget is just so tight,” said Ward.
Gary Caldwell, finance officer for Letcher County Public Schools, said the district has already used 54 percent of its utility budget for this fiscal year. The district spent $410,069 on electricity from July 2010 through December 2010 compared with $334,490 spend from July 2009 through December 2009. Caldwell said the district experienced a 23-percent increase from this time last year, which amounts to $75,579.
Banks suggested people call their legislators and complain about the rate increase and ask for a law like West Virginia has to make the power company prove it needs the rate increase. American Electric Power’s two West Virginia subsidiaries have submitted a settlement proposal to that state’s Public Service Commission that would raise residential rates there by 7 percent. Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power initially sought a 17 percent rate increase for residential customers and increases of 12 percent to 15 percent for commercial and industrial customers.
Banks also suggested that the PSC should consist of elected positions.
“By being elected, you are going to make them be more receptive,” said Banks.
State Representative Leslie Combs said the idea of making seats on the PSC elected positions has been suggested by other legislators.
“That is something that yes we have talked about,” said Combs. “I can see pros and cons to doing that.”
Combs said the governor appoints these positions and she would like to see how other states are doing which have these as elected positions.
“It is an option to consider,” said Combs. “I would like to heavily research it.”
Combs said she and other legislators “know the bills are going up.”
“We are well aware of it,” she said. “We are particularly aware of this in terms of people starving.”
Combs said she has received a few calls from people asking for assistance and she has directed them to agencies to help with their specific needs.
“I just try to hook them up personally with someone that can review their situation,” she said.
Combs said funding is limited for heat assistance and legislators are looking for some additional funding. She says she welcomes people to call and let her know if they can’t pay electric bills.
“In the meantime, let us know,” said Combs.
Robinson said as part of the rate case settlement, 15 cents of a residential customer’s bill goes toward a program for low-income heating assistance through LKLP Community Action Council, and the power company puts in 12 cents per residential customer. Robinson said this amounts to $472,000 for the program.
Call LKLP at 606-436-3161 to see if you qualify for heating assistance.
Robinson said those who can’t pay bills can call the power company at 1-800-572-1113 to see if arrangements can be made to set up a budget plan to make average monthly payments.
“It evens it out so you can know what to expect,” said Robinson. “You can work to budget money for that.”
Call Combs at (502) 564-8100 Ext. 669. Call State Rep. John Short at 1-800-372-7181. Call State Sen. Johnny Ray Turner at (502) 564- 6136. Call the Public Service Commission at 1-800-772-4636.