Lowndes County residents fed up with electric bills

Posted by Samuel King - bio | email

LOWNDES COUNTY, AL (WSFA) - People in Lowndes County say they're fed up with high electric bills.  Members of the Pioneer Electric Cooperative pay higher rates for electricity than any other cooperative in the state.

"My bill's running from four, five, six hundred dollars a month," said Callie Thomas of Mosses. "Half of the time I'm not there.  My kids are grown."

Geraldine Grant contacted Pioneer after receiving a letter saying she owned thousands of dollars in payments.  The Cooperative said a second meter on the building where her pool hall is located, wasn't working properly, and so she was undercharged for service.

"When I called it, and they said 2600, I said wow, they had to be done made a mistake," said Grant.

Pioneer officials are checking out the problem.  But Grant is among those who have complained to city and county officials about Pioneer's rates and service.

Pioneer charges 12.8 cents per kilowatt hour and a $34 access charge per month.

Alabama Power charges around 7 cents per kilowatt hour depending on the time of year and a $14 access fee.

Mosses Mayor Walter Hill said he's been struggling with the issue for 10 years.  He blamed the fallout from failed investments former management at the Cooperative made as part of the reason for the high rates.

"On the backs of working-class citizens, disabled citizens, fixed-income citizens, they're trying to recoup that," Hill said.  'By what other means, there's no one to that looks over them to regulate them to say, you've got to do what's right."

Pioneer's general manager Steven Harmon said a small part of the cost to rebuild the utility's finances is being passed on to members - less than $100 per year.  He mentioned that Pioneer had made significant progress in improving its finances.  It had 19% negative equity five years ago; it has 6% positive equity now.

Harmon said the bigger reason for the higher rates is that it costs more to serve a small customer base in rural areas.

"We're sparsely populated, so a mile of our line, we have less than five meters to cover the same costs, and that's why our rates are higher," Harmon said.  "We don't differentiate between counties, between cities, between areas.  So it's not that, it's not that we charge more or we charge less."

Pioneer says it's given more time for members to pay their bills and the utility has received grants to help members weatherize their homes.  Harmon said many customers in Pioneer's eight county service area live either mobile homes, or other homes that are not energy efficient.

"69 percent of all new services that we connect are mobile homes," Harmon said.  "There's nothing wrong with living in a mobile home, but they're less energy efficient.

The Lowndes County Commission said it will hold a public hearing on April 25th about the issue.  They've invited officials from Pioneer to attend.

Copyright 2011 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.