Editor: I read a letter regarding New Bern’s utility department (Sun-Journal, June 15) with keen interest.
The letter reminded me of those written by Billy Smith a few years ago. Smith, an avid preservationist and lover of New Bern, felt the city’s alder men and women’s ability to do anything right ranked below John Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs committee.
May I offer a response to the points raised in the recent letter.
The reward the city provides utility users who pay on time is negative — that is the shiny truck does NOT show up to shut off your meter — as it does for non-payment.
But the idea of a positive reward, as mentioned, intrigues me. More in a moment.
If bills are not paid utilities are still shut off. What was recently re-negotiated is the amount of deposit to have the power turned back on, how that deposit can be paid, and how long the city will hold that deposit before returning it.
(May I suggest that the city pay interest on these held deposits, which amount to an interest-free loan to the city.)
As the letter mentions, utility bills which remain unpaid and uncollectible are eventually written off. But I seen to remembers (then-) Mayor (Lee) Bettis saying at one time that these written-off accounts in any one year amounted to less than 1 percent of total utility revenues, hardly a heavy burden.
And city utility rates — the amount paid per kilowatt-hour — are higher than those paid by customers of Duke Energy. The city has long used utility revenues — in excess of costs — as a form of taxation to bolster general revenues.
Perhaps achieving parity with Duke Energy should be the next goal of utility reform. To achieve that goal I suggest the city develop its own field of solar panels, say in the unpopulated, sunny land between New Bern and Kinston.
In our modern world living without power, as suggested in the June 15 letter, is hardly an option. For those struggling financially from week to week, lower energy costs would be some small help.
And if that power came from renewables all the better; and all the more likely, if rates did drop, that bills would be paid.
That would be a positive reward for all of us.
And it’s a pleasure to remember Billy Smith.
John Phaup, New Bern
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Posted in In Box, Utilities
Mayor Dana Outlaw declares the first and second motions dead based on lack of seconds. Alderman Sabrina Bengel promptly followed up with another motion that passed on a 4-1 vote.
Newly elected aldermen outvoted their more senior colleagues on Tuesday, initiating a more lenient utility rate deposit policy that takes effect July 1 but is not retroactive.
On Alderman Sabrina Bengel’s motion and Alderman Jameesha Harris’ second, the board voted 4-3 for the revised policy, which states:
- Per fiscal year, deposits will not be assessed on the first payment arrangement. Payment arrangements may be billed as installments. No late penalties or fees will be assessed if the payment plan is adhered to as agreed upon.
- Per fiscal year, deposits will not be assessed for the first check returned for insufficient funds.
- New customers may pay deposits in installments with 50 percent due at the time service is established and the balance payable over four billing cycles. Payment arrangements are not permitted until the deposit is paid.
- New residential deposits shall not exceed $500.
Bengel, Harris, and Alderman Barbara Best drafted the policy revisions and were expected to vote for it. The only question was whether there would be a forth vote necessary to pass it.
But Best had new concerns about deposit refunds. At present, security deposits are returned after 18 months of good payments. Even with the revised policy, one payment arrangement would restart the 18 month period before the deposit is refunded to the customer.
Best argued that one payment arrangement should not prevent a customer from receiving a refund after one 18-month period.
Harris went the entire opposite direction. She said by reducing the security deposit to $500, it puts the city at further financial risk. She argued that security deposits should be returned only when a customer leaves the city.
Alderman Bobby Aster, a potential swing vote, questioned whether that would be fair, saying the city would then be holding onto deposits for years or decades.
Harris made the initial motion, which did not get a second, mainly because of wording issues.
Bengel made a second motion that would have allowed customers to have their security deposit refunded after 18 months even if during that time they had made one payment arrangement, provided they completed the payment arrangement during that 18 months.
Harris said she would not support that motion, saying the city should not refund security deposits except when a customer leaves the city.
Perhaps seeing an opportunity to stall the revision of a policy that he implemented during his first term as mayor, Mayor Dana Outlaw declared the two motions dead for lack of being seconded.
He suggested that the board wait before changing the policy. The city has not fully rolled out its advanced utility metering system or a program that allows customers to prepay their bills, he said. The city also has a new utilities director who has not had a chance to weigh in on the issue.
Alderman Jeffrey Odham agreed, saying that changing the policy would be jumping the gun.
Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey, who at first said he liked the Bengel/Harris/Best plan, agreed with Outlaw and Odham.
Undeterred, with Best’s permission, Bengel made another motion, this one free of any mention of deposit refunds, guaranteeing at least the three votes from the committee that drafted the policy revisions. That motion passed, 4-1, with Astor casting the deciding vote.
The financial impact on the city is that it puts up to $72,000 at risk if customers default.
Posted in Aldermen, Board of Aldermen, Mayor, Utilities