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Electric bills spark outcry

by Minden Press-Herald

Several concerned Minden residents spoke to the city council Monday evening with concerns about varying utility bills, discrepancies, human error, empathy and solutions for a 20-year contract with SWEPCO.

The multifaceted issue was addressed by Minden Mayor Tommy Davis.

“SWEPCO is not doing us right,” he said, noting the company did not have any representation at the meeting. “I’m not taking up for them. … I was told last Thursday that someone from SWEPCO would be here to help answer questions and explain the situation we are in, but I was told last minute that they would not be able to make it.”

Resident Erica Boulas asked for clarification on how the city is billed for the energy from SWEPCO.

“Are we getting double billed? And if so, what can we do to stop it?”

Davis explained the city operates under a financial contract with SWEPCO, governed by SPP, but is also physically involved with Entergy, governed by MISO.

“We buy the energy from SWEPCO, but it is brought in on lines owned by Entergy,” he said. “So yes, there are charges from MISO/Entergy that are passed on to us. On top of that there are congestion charges. We are doing everything we can do to keep those low.”

Minden’s power plant operated for 51 days, understaffed with employees working 12-hour shifts.

The contract with SWEPCO states Minden is obligated to assist in supplementing power when requested, noting cost for gas to generate the steam plant will be reimbursed. However, other cost such as staffing the power plant are not mentioned.
City officials said the 51-day streak was in response to additional charges from SWEPCO of $400,000 in July and $200,000 in August the city was not expecting.

City officials reiterated at the November meeting that the city is pursuing all avenues to renegotiate or be relinquished from the power purchase agreement, of which 14 years still remain.

“It was a good deal when the contract was signed but it has proven not to be in the long run,” Davis said. “We have hired an attorney who deals with these types of contracts in [Washington] D.C. and this may end up going to court.”

Councilman Benny Gray agreed.

“With hindsight it is easy to see this is a 20-year mistake,” Gray said.

The power purchase agreement states that the city waives its right to a trial by jury, but leaders remain hopeful.

“This will not be an easy or over night fix,” Davis said. “Even if SWEPCO relieved us from the contract, it would still be a year before a new agreement could be reached.”

In addition to issues with the contract, Davis said some customers might find their billing problems resolved once new meters are installed.

Brandon Anders, Minden resident and associate pastor of First Assembly of God in Minden said he addressed his billing issues with Minden’s light and water department. Employees found issues within the utility department to be to blame for billing errors.

“I don’t mind paying for the utilities I’ve used,” he said. “But I should be charged for what I use, when I use it and not penalized for errors occurring in the utility department.”

Anders said his meter was read and recorded correctly, but was logged in to the system incorrectly.

According to city officials, 80 percent of water meters and 40 percent of electric meters have been installed, with the projects to be tentatively complete in January.

The elderly and residents on fixed incomes were the focus of many addressing the council.

In addition to conserving electricity and water, Davis urged residents to contact the utility department for assistance before cut off dates.
An average of 900 residents fill a roster of cutoffs for late payment a month. However many are able to pay the bill before being one of the 150 a month who are shut off for non-payment.

Currently the city does not offer a formal payment plan, but has attempted to offer levelized billing in the past. In 2014, surveys were sent out with utility bills asking residents their opinion.

Fayrine Kennon-Gilbert said of the surveys sent out, only a third came back.

“And of that third, only half of those were in favor of it,” she said. “So it did not justify creating the program. But if the citizens are saying now they are interested, this is something we can attempt to do again.”

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