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City hears concerns about utility bills

By Shannon Beamon
Staff Writer
Higher than normal utility bills are prompting a temporary change to payment policies in Albemarle.
After a week of below freezing temperatures in January, electricity usage spiked throughout the city, utility department staff said.
Temperatures over the past couple of months have been 55 percent colder than last year. January saw a 48 percent increase in heating degree days — a measure of the energy needed to heat a local home.
“Most heating systems around here just aren’t designed for prolonged temperatures like that,” Albemarle’s Public Utilities Director Mike Leonas said. “They can’t keep up.”
Heat pumps for example — one of the most common heating units in North Carolina — loose efficiency in extreme temperatures. The colder it gets, the more energy it takes for the unit to generate heat.
In addition, older homes or those without good windows and insulation loose costly heat more swiftly, which means energy-consuming heat has to be generated more quickly, as well.
“There are a lot of factors that play into it,” Leonas said.
And for many, those factors are adding up more quickly than they can pay.
At the council’s last meeting, two residents brought forward utility bills they could not meet this month. Dozens more have posted concerns about paying utility bills on social media.
The first of those at the meeting was a mother of three living in Section 8 housing. Her bill (including back fees) jumped from $300 in December to $1,200 in January, she said.
The second — a young man working at the Five Points Public House — said he wouldn’t be able to pay both rent and his utility bill this month.
“We just want to know if there’s anything that can be done,” Shawn Gould, the father of the latter said.
While city officials said they can’t reduce bills, they will work with residents on payment options.
For those who can’t pay that entire bill this month, the city will offer an extra payment extention upon request. (An extention allows a household to delay paying a bill for 10 days.)
Normally each utility customer is given four extentions a year; this will make it five.
“We are also setting up payment plans with people the best we can,” City Manager Michael Ferris said.
Payment plans allow a household to distribute back payments over multiple bills, staff explained.
“This is such an extreme situation, so please contact customer services if you need help working something out,” Ferris said.
As for other factors that could have played into the high utility bills, officials said nothing else should have raised bills on their end.
“Our rates have not gone up,” Mayor Ronnie Michael said.
In fact, the cost of electricity in Albemarle has been the same for two years now, and was lowered the year before that.
As for any city equipment malfunctions, city staff said they are not aware of any. The digital meters used at each residence have a low fail rate, they noted.
“About 99.9 percent of the time they’re 99.9 percent accurate,” Leonas said. “And if they are ever off, it’s not by much… they’re more likely to just shut off if something’s wrong, and then they’re not reading anything.”
Just in case, though, the city will test meters for those with extreme bill increases. For example, the young mother who came to speak at the council meeting got her meter tested and found it functioning correctly, she said.
But at the same time, this is the highest electric bill she’s had since she moved in there three years ago.
“I would encourage [you] to make sure the (heat) pump is working right and that it’s not functioning solely on emergency heat,” Michael said to the family.
The city does not have the equipment or staff to check the energy efficiency of a home, council members said, but many local businesses do.
And while Section 8 housing providers are encouraged to provide energy efficient units, it is not required, staff said.
“There are a lot of older units on the program,” Public Housing Director Cedric Baldwin said. “We’re trying to raise education about that.”
As for those residents who aren’t using electric heating systems, they should have seen higher bills during the cold snap, too.
“While the (heating element) may use fuel or oil or natural gas, there’s an electric blower motor pumping air into the house,” Leonas said.
During cold weather — when heat leaks out of a house more quickly — that blower will have to run more often.
In addition, any space heaters running on a property can add anywhere from $1-$10 a day to an electric bill.
“They’re really one of the least efficient ways to heat a home,” Leonas said. “People think they will save money, but you really won’t.”
For any other issues or questions on a specific utility bill, residents are asked to contact customer service either by phone at (704) 984-9615 or by email at custserv@albemarlenc.gov.

Contact Shannon Beamon at (704) 982-2121 ext. 24, or shannon@stanlynewspress.com.