Utility bills have folks running hot

By: By Scott Bigelow - Staff writer

LUMBERTON — One of the coldest months on record and an extended billing cycle has sent some Lumberton electric bills through the roof and left customers shaking their heads in disbelief.

For Lauren Little, it was a $619 monthly bill for her 2,000-square-foot home in the Tanglewood neighborhood. For Little’s neighbor Marc Roam, the monthly bill was $1,057.

City Manager Wayne Horne said his office has handled many billing questions. He read off the temperatures for the month of January with numerous lows in the teens and 20s.

“It’s been an exceptionally cold month,” Horne said. “When it gets too cold, a heat pump kicks in auxiliary heat strips, and energy usage soars.”

Little noted that her billing period was 37 days long, not the typical 30 or 31. For the coldest month of the year, a longer billing cycle added to the pain.

“We had four snow days in January, when we could not read meters,” Horne said. “We’re telling people to look at our payment plan or sign up for the equal pay plan that evens out their electric bills through the year.”

Little’s research found that residential electric rates in Lumberton are higher than other providers.

“Our rates are more than 12 cents per kilowatt, and other rates I found in North Carolina are around 9 cents,” Little said. “I’ve heard it has something to do with something that happened back in the 70s.

“I don’t know how they expect one of the poorest areas of the state to pay extremely higher rates.”

Little is basically correct, Horne said, but the future of Lumberton rates looks far more promising than the past.

“We lowered electric rates by 6.7 percent two years ago and another 3.5 percent in January,” Horne said. “The City Council has agreed there will be no rate increase for the next two years.”

Lumberton and a group of eastern North Carolina cities buy their power wholesale from Duke Energy Progress through ElectriCities. In the late 1970s, ElectriCities borrowed several hundred million dollars to purchase generating capacity from Duke’s predecessor, Carolina Power & Light.

The deal was a disaster after costs went out of control to build nuclear power stations. Lumberton got no benefit and couldn’t pay down the loan, until Duke bailed the city out in 2015.

None of that solves Roam’s problem. He first got a bill in the $400s, then a correction came in letter form that put his electric bill at more than $1,000.

“I had my contractor check my system, and everything is working,” Roam said. “This bill is more than my mortgage payment. It’s crazy.”

Roam keeps his thermostat at 70 degrees, 68 when no one is home in his 2,200-square-foot house. Although he uses LED lighting and has energy-saving appliances, his heat pump is 12 years old.

Roam asked the city to check his meter, but said he was told no. The city offered Roam a payment plan. He is considering moving.

“Older systems are always more expensive,” Horne said.

The meter reading problem that led to an extended billing month should go away in the future, Horne said.

“We have installed 200 automatic meter readers in a pilot project,” Horne said. “A citywide program is under discussion for the 2018-19 budget.”

What Horne and everyone else is hoping for is “better weather.”


By Scott Bigelow

Staff writer

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or bigelow@yahoo.com.

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or bigelow@yahoo.com.