Minden Mayor Tommy Davis shrugged off the idea that the city was charging residents for extra days in a year on their utility bills at the city council meeting Tuesday.
During the public comment time, Minden resident Lisa McKinley addressed the council for more than 30 minutes on behalf of the Concerned Citizens Against City of Minden Utilities Facebook group.
“Several of us have noticed our billing cycle for 2016 ranges anywhere from 300 to 375 days,” she said. “If there are only 365 days in a year, how are we being billed for 300 and 70 something?”
The cause of the difference in days, Davis said, was a result of the time it takes to read the meters by hand and said he has seen billing cycles as short as 25 days to 40 days.
“We have to read these meters by hand and walk from door to door,” he said. “Sometimes because of the weather or weekend, they don’t get read every month at the same time.”
When the new automated meters, which is currently being installed citywide, are online, Davis said the difference in billing days will end because all meters will be read at the same time.
The installation of the new automatic power and water meters are expected to be complete in the first couple of months of this year.
Until the new meters are fully online, Davis said the city would begin working to have the meters read on a more regular schedule to ensure billing cycles remain the same.
“We decided today (Tuesday) to read everyone’s meters at the same time so we can get everyone’s bills as close as possible,” he said. “It will take us about a three-month period to have it complete.”
McKinley said she felt the city is “stalling” on the issue.
“This is an issue of promoting the city,” she said, asking for the city to do a better job at keeping the public informed. “My children are not here and have no desire to come back here. There isn’t anything to offer them to come back to Minden.”
Davis said communications were on going with the attorney hired by the city to seek solutions surrounding issues created with the Power Purchase Agreement with Swepco.
“We are trying to move forward as fast as we can, but there will not be a quick fix,” he said. “I
know that sounds like I’m stalling, but it is a matter of possible litigation. Whatever I say in an open meeting may end up in court. But I do want you to know we are doing everything that we can to rectify the contract. It’s not going as fast as I want it to you or you want it to, but it is going as fast as it can.”
McKinley said the issue affects the development of the city.
“When your utilities are more than your house note, some thing has got to give,” she said. “It makes people want to leave.”
Councilman Mike Toland said the issue is a priority for the council.
“We are very concerned about the electric and water problems and we are working on it,” he said.
Toland explained the yearly billing cycle may be more or less than 365 days because of when meters are read.
“If your bill is read Jan. 5, instead of Jan. 1 that’s 370 days right there. We are addressing that [with the new meters system],” he said and then asked citizens to allow time for the changes to take effect.
He also noted misinformation and communication is an issue.
McKinley stressed the issue has further implications than worried citizens who have had a reduction in income or live on a fixed budget.
“It appears the city is not trying to work with the ones that have high electric bills of hundreds of dollars,” she said. “It is a cause of anxiety when you are forced to choose between your house note or rent, food and electricity. When the city refuses to work with you during the crisis, it makes it very hard on people and families.
“While our income is not your problem, it is the constant fluctuating of the number of days in a billing cycle and the inability for families to predict and budget for their utilities that makes it difficult.”
McKinley informed the council of an issue one of the members of the concerned citizens group encountered.
The member paid approximately $340 on the utility bill, but still owed the city $10. The resident was given a disconnect notice.
“She gave all that she could to pay her bill and was just a bit short and the city would not work with her,” McKinley explained.
Davis said while the city issues disconnect notices for accounts with arrears, there is a possibility for assistance in some situations.
“We don’t cut anyone off for $10,” he said. “If people would come to see me during the hours of business operation, I would be in a better position to be able to help, to go over the specifics of your utility bill.
“It is done all the time, but it is not done for everyone,” Davis explained, noting no cutoffs were performed in December. “It depends on the situation. People sometimes act like we don’t have a heart, but we do.”
McKinley said most citizens do not know there may be opportunities available to residents seeking assistance.
“We don’t know that you won’t cut that off. When we come up here, employees tell us you will either pay it by this day or it will be cut off,” she said. “It is a cycle of fear.”
McKinley and group organizer James Thurman have both met with Davis regarding their utility bill and did not find helpful outcomes.
“I have come to see you and I feel like when I talked to you face to face several months ago, I am still in the same exact spot,” McKinley said to Davis. “Three months later, I still have no answers, but that you are trying.”
McKinley said responses and lack of understanding causes citizens to “feel like we are being put off.”
“Sometimes the response we get from you feels like we are being hushed up, even if there is something you are trying to do,” she said.
Thurman spoke to Davis in a private meeting about his personal utility bill. For the past three years, Thurman’s bill has not added up to 365 days in a yearly billing cycle.
“He just laughed…,” Thurman told the Minden Press-Herald. “We were talking about the lack of accuracy due to not having the new meters and human error.”
Davis said steps have been taken with new meters and plans are in place to reduce human error. He told the room his top priority is to find a solution to the PPA with SWEPCO in the next two years and he appreciates citizens participating in council meetings.
“Our city cannot stand to wait that long,” McKinley said. “We can’t keep living in an area we can’t afford.”
McKinley said she is considering moving outside of Minden, and in the process has spoken with realtors. She learned bids have been withdrawn on Minden real estate due to utility concerns.
While he supports citizens being informed and working together, Davis said, “the Concerned Citizens group on Facebook, “it is really bad publicity for the city of Minden.”
Benny Gray said the city and council is not an enemy to the concerned citizens group.
“We are on your side. We are working for you,” he said. “We will do everything we can to keep this city going and make it a place for your children and grandchildren to come home to.”