Charity group asks Huntsville Utilities for relief for customers who can’t pay their bill

electric meterDeposits are high because of transients who run up exorbitant bills and leave town, said Huntsville Utilities President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Pippin (Stock photo)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – A representative of a Catholic charity that helps residents with their utilities bill asked the Huntsville Utilities Electric Board to consider giving the poor and families in a financial crisis more leniency to pay their bills and get their power restored, as reconnect fees can reach near $1,000 for some customers.

Bill Pippin, the utilities president and chief executive officer, explained at a meeting this morning how the utilities helps customers who struggle to pay their bills and how the utilities sets reconnect fees and deposits.

He said he will meet with members of the group next week to discuss their issues and see if there are any changes he might recommend to the board.

Mac Yates of the local chapter of the Society of St. Vincent DePaul asked the board to better promote the utilities’ customer assistance programs, give customers more time to pay their bills before their power is cut off, and reduce reconnect fees that can reach $960 for a $300 monthly bill.

Yates said the group paid Huntsville Utilities $114,830 last year to help families who were suffering hardships such as losing a job or illness. He said the utilities fee structure limits the group’s ability to help the less fortunate.

“We’re having a hard time helping these people,” Yates said.

The utilities, working with the St. Vincent DePaul group and other organizations, helped 9,689 families with $2.67 million in assistance last year, Pippin said.

He said some customers needing help might fall through the cracks, but the utilities will work with a customer if the customer will call.

“We want to help everybody we can help who are not hoodwinking us,” Pippin said.

Yates asked that the board give a customer who has his power cut off for not paying his bill more than four days before requiring a new $300 deposit to restore power. He asked that the customer have 10 days to pay the bill and have their power restored without paying the new deposit.

Pippin said the utilities might change the policy to give a customer more than four days to have power restored without paying the deposit, but he wasn’t sure it could be as long as 10 days.

Yates also asked the board to adjust its reconnect fees for a customer who falls into the “bad debt” category.

A customer is placed in bad debt status if he takes no action within 45 days of having his power cut off. To get his power restored, such a customer must pay a $60 fee, pay the back debt, and an amount that is twice what his highest bill had been at the address. That means a person whose back debt of $300 and whose highest bill had been $300 could end up owing a total of $960 for reconnection, Yates said.

Yates presented the reconnect fees of six other utilities that showed none charged the two times the highest bill fee to bad debt customers. Alabama Power, a private, for profit company, charges twice the customers’ average bill to reconnect power.

Huntsville Utilities determines fees and deposits based on statistics, history and best business practices to cover its costs, Pippin said.

He said the deposits are high because of transients who run up exorbitant bills and leave town. Charging higher deposits keeps other customers from having to share more of the cost, Pippin said.

“The reason we charge two times the highest bill is because that’s what we get stuck with,” Pippin said. “Transients run up their bill and take off.”

Huntsville Utilities spokesman Bill Yell said after the meeting that the other cities in Yates’ presentation are exclusively power suppliers, while Huntsville Utilities customer deposits also cover water and natural gas services.

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Walmart tries gas price cuts to goose sales; Alabama law restricts options, though


Alabama is one of 20 states where Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced Wednesday that it will offer a 10-cent discount per gallon of gas for customers, but the promotion will work slightly differently than elsewhere.

The world’s largest retailer is offering the dime discount through Sept. 30 at Murphy USA stations located in store parking lots. In most places, people will be able to get the break when they buy gas with Walmart credit cards, gift cards or preloaded cash cards.

In Alabama, only the credit cards will earn discounts because of a state law that prohibits selling fuel below cost. The Bentonville, Ark., company said those discounts will show up as statement credits, not at the pump. The company said there are 50 Murphy USA stores in Alabama, including a dozen in southwest Alabama.

Tom Kloza, publisher of Oil Price Information Service, said cheap gas has long helped lure customers to Sam’s Club stores and said the discount could help the sister Walmart division build sales.

“It’s the kind of promotion designed to get attention and build customer loyalty,” he wrote in an email. “When people get discounts on gasoline, it is almost magical so it’s a pretty savvy way of pushing consumers toward aggregating their shopping — planning one trip for say gas, groceries, and merchandise.”

Walmart has been struggling to reverse a two-year trend of falling sales, and has faced increased competition from dollar stores and others. The retailer’s customers are also very sensitive to gas prices, with spikes in fuel costs visibly eating into Walmart sales.

“Our customers have told us that high gas prices are their top budget concern, nearly as large of an expense to their household as food and groceries,” Stephen Quinn, Walmart’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement.

Gas prices rose sharply in the spring, peaking at an average of $3.80 a gallon in the Mobile area in mid-May, but have since fallen to an average of $3.39. Still, the government reported on Monday that Americans spent at the weakest pace in 20 months in May, a sign gas prices may be hurting the economic recovery.

Walmart is far from the first company to try a gas promotion. Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., for example, offers a gas rewards program called Fuelperks at many Shell stations in Florida and Louisiana. There, a customer has to have a store loyalty card and spend $50 to earn a discount of 5 cents per gallon on up to 20 gallons.

The Walmart promotion, by contrast, is open to anyone using a store card, even if they don’t make a purchase.

“We think this gas program is leading in the market because it doesn’t require any additional purchase,” Quinn said.

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Navy exercises options on 6th, 7th JHSV from Austal

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Better Business Bureau warns of Social Security scam


MOBILE, Ala. — Scammers are trying to get money from elderly and disabled people by pretending to fill out IRS forms that claim refunds, according to the Better Business Bureau of South Alabama.

The scammers are telling people who collect Social Security benefits that they are entitled to a refund because there has not been a cost-of-living increase associated with such benefits, according to Tina Waller, president of the BBB of South Alabama.

The scammers are charging $10 to $15 per form, promising refunds of more than $3,000, Waller said in a written statement.

Waller said no such refund exists.

Waller said anyone who has paid to file a return for this reason or has any other question should contact the BBB at 251-433-5494. 

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Amsted Rail’s hiring event draws big crowd in Bessemer

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Canadian company will open peanut butter plant in Alabama

Robert Bentley.JPGGov. Robert Bentley says the Troy peanut butter plant is ‘Alabama’s latest economic development success story.’BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Gov. Robert Bentley said today that a Canadian company will open a peanut butter plant in Troy with 130 jobs.

Golden Boy Foods Ltd. supplies many of top retailers in North America, as well as large foodservice companies and major food processors. The company has other facilities in Washington, Ontario and British Columbia. It is owned by Tricor Pacific Capital Inc.

“Golden Boy Foods is Alabama’s latest economic development success story,” Bentley said in a statement.  “The announcement that Golden Boy Foods has chosen Troy shows great confidence in Alabama’s workforce.”

CEO Richard Harris said the company reviewed locations across Alabama and Georgia before deciding on Troy. He said the Pike County city “stood out as (having) the most favorable climate for our business, and the place in which we received the warmest welcome.”

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Walter Energy says CEO Keith Calder is departing

coal mining.JPGWalter Energy has a major coal mining operation in Alabama.BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Walter Energy, which this year canceled plans to move its headquarters to Birmingham, said its chief executive has quit over differences of opinion on the company’s direction.
Keith Calder plans to resign July 31, said Tampa-based Walter, which operates undergound coal mines in Tuscaloosa and Fayette counties and Walter Coke in Birmingham. The board named director Joseph Leonard to take over as interim chief executive.
Calder became chief executive after his company, Canada-based Western Coal, was bought by Walter last year. The purchase of Western, with operations in Canada, West Virginia and Europe, stopped plans to move the Walter headquarters from Tampa to Birmingham. The company has said Birmingham is still in the running for the main office, but that all other options were being explored.  

Before the Western Coal deal, Alabama seemed a shoo-in. Walter had in Alabama all of its earning assets — the coal mines, coke plant, 2,100 employees and a fleet of natural gas wells.

Now, another twist has been dropped into the goings-on at the Walter head office.
Calder told the board, according to a Walter statement, he is resigning due to “differences of opinion concerning management philosophy.”

“I do believe Walter Energy has immense potential and I am sure it will be realized,” the Walter statement cited Calder as saying. “That said, it is now time for me to move on and pursue other interests.”

Walter Energy produces metallurgical and steam coal. Revenue in 2010 was about $2.3 billion.

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Federal judge rejects Securities and Exchange Commission claim Morgan Keegan misled investors

Morgan Keegan.JPG

ATLANTA — Morgan Keegan Co. didn’t mislead investors by selling them about $2.2 billion of auction-rate securities that later became hard to sell, a judge has ruled.

The ruling by the judge in U.S. District Court in Atlanta late Tuesday rejected Securities and Exchange Commission claims about the brokerage unit of Regions Financial Corp. The market for auction-rate securities collapsed in 2008, leaving investors holding billions of dollars of bonds they thought would be easy to sell.

“The SEC has not introduced any evidence to show that Morgan Keegan instituted a company-wide policy encouraging its brokers to misrepresent ARS liquidity risks,” U.S. District Judge William S. Duffey Jr. wrote. “Failure to predict the market does not amount to securities fraud.”

Morgan Keegan, which Regions is considering selling, is eager to put the auction-rate mess in the past. Wednesday, the company said it expects to complete in the third quarter the repurchase of the auction-rate securities from retail investors left holding onto them. The hard-to-sell bonds include auction-rate securities issued by Jefferson County for its sewer system, Morgan Keegan said.

In 2008, the re-sale market for such securities, whose interest rates were reset via periodic auctions, collapsed amid the housing and banking crisis. To fix things, Morgan Keegan and other banks and brokerages have been buying up the investments from the people who bought them.

“Participants in the repurchase program have not lost a penny on their auction rate investments — the program returned 100 percent of principal and interest,” the company wrote in a statement.

Last week, Birmingham-based Regions said it is exploring options for Morgan Keegan that include a sale. That same week, the firm settled claims by state and federal regulators that it misled investors into putting money into bond funds backed sub-prime mortgages which later collapsed as the housing bubble burst. Morgan Keegan agreed to pay $210 million to settle the case.

The SEC sued Morgan Keegan over the auction-rate bonds in July 2009, claiming the company encouraged brokers to push the debt before the re-sale market froze in February 2008. Customers weren’t told about the growing risk that the securities could become difficult to sell, the SEC said at the time. Since then, dozens of banks have returned billions of dollars to investors who bought the securities.

John Nester, an SEC spokesman, said the agency is considering whether to appeal, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The SEC in court papers cited four Morgan Keegan customers who claimed they were misled by brokers who allegedly said auction-rate securities were “cash equivalents” and “completely liquid.” Judge Duffey blamed the agency for arguing those claims were true for others.

“The SEC is attempting to bootstrap the investor-specific impact of the misrepresentations alleged by four individual investors as a grounds to seek relief for a whole class of investors without any evidence that the other investors received similar oral misrepresentations,” Duffey said in the judgment.

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At U.S. House hearing in Hoover, more urged for battle on cybercrime

U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus (The Birmingham News/Hal Yeager file)

HOOVER, Alabama — A top U.S. Secret Service official warned members of Congress at a hearing in Hoover on Wednesday that cyber-criminals are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to U.S. businesses, underscoring the need to train law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges to learn to deal with the fast growing category of crime.

“Current trends show an increase in network intrusions, hacking attacks, malicious software and account takeovers which result in data breaches that affect every sector of the American economy,” Alvin T. Smith, assistant director of the Secret Service, said during testimony at a field hearing held by the U.S. House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday.

Many people do not even know they’re a victim of identity theft until long after they are attacked by a hacker, said Randall Hillman, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association. In the Internet era, there is a “most pressing” need for digital information and law enforcement officials who know how to identify and use that evidence, which can be used to solve not just financial crimes but also to gather evidence for prosecuting murders and child pornographers.

“We have very quickly moved from just blood and guts to megabytes and megapixels,” Hillman said during the field hearing at the National Computer Forensics Institute in Hoover.

U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, is chair of the committee and led the field hearing, which is used to gather evidence for developing public policy.

In just the past several months, financial and government institutions including Citigroup, the International Monetary Fund, the United States Senate and the Central Intelligence Agency have been victims of hacking. Sony, whose PlayStation network was hacked in May, estimated the cost of the attack will total $171 million.

Smith said the Secret Service, through partnerships with law enforcement entities and academic institutions, have arrested “numerous transnational sovereign criminals” responsible for the theft of hundreds of millions of account numbers which led to retail and financial institution losses totaling $600 million.

The National Computer Forensics Institute, which opened four years ago, is a cybercrime training center funded by $4 million annually from the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate. The NCFI, which facilitates training for state and local law enforcement officials from around the country by U.S. Secret Service personnel, since May 19, 2008 has trained 839 students. However, budget constraints limit the NCFI to operate only at 25 percent capacity. Full capacity of the training facility would cost $16 million annually.

Bachus said he intends to look into ways of finding additional funding for the NCFI. He said the other funding doesn’t have to come from the Secret Service and could possibly come from the financial industry or federal regulatory agencies.

“We can’t continue to let $37 billion a year leave our financial and other retail companies and let the great percentage of it end up in foreign countries,” Bachus said during an interview after the hearing.

Bachus said one of the most memorable moments from the hearing was when about two dozen judges from around the country attending the NCFI this week stood and introduced themselves. Several explained the significance of the training they’re receiving.

There is a significant need to train more law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges to investigate and prevent cybercrimes and electronic evidence, said Gary Warner, director of Research for Computer Forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Warner, who also testified at the hearing, said there are more cybercrimes being committed than there are law enforcement officials with the time and resources to fight back.

Warner said only about 1.3 million victims file cyber-crime complaints each year even though about 11 million are actually victims each year. He estimates the total annual financial loss in the U.S. from such crimes is about $53 billion. One of the most important things someone can do, he said, is report everything, even seemingly small amounts such as $100.

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Vestavia Hills mom builds business, fights cancer

Baby Face BandVestavia Hills mother Laura Black, who is juggling a busy household and battling cancer, hopes to create a market for her Baby Face Band. (The Birmingham News / Michelle Campbell)

VESTAVIA HILLS, Alabama — Vestavia Hills mom Laura Black was working in her church’s nursery one day when she noticed all the toddlers were grabbing each other’s sippy cups and drinking out of them.

Disgusted, Black thought there must be a better way to prevent such mix-ups, but babies can’t read the names often printed on their cups and nursery workers sometimes don’t know whose is whose.

Then, inspiration struck as she decided to create a band that could be slipped around a cup and feature a child’s picture.

This summer, her idea is becoming a reality as she begins peddling the colorful silicone rings, called Baby Face Bands, to local stores. In September, she plans to attend a trade show in Kentucky where she hopes to make contacts with national retailers and take the product nationwide.

Through it all, Black, 36, is juggling her own household — husband Bill and children Will, 8, Gracy, 7, and Caroline, 3 — along with a fierce fight against breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with four years ago.

“All my friends say, ‘Nobody has more balls in the air than Laura,’” she said. “I just can’t let cancer run my life.”

The new business also has been a good distraction from her illness, Black said.

“It sounds so simple,” she said of the bands. “But there have been so many more steps than we ever imagined.”

She came up with the idea in 2009 and first studied whether it would be viable.

“Research says kids can recognize themselves between 12 and 15 months, and that’s the exact same age they start using a sippy cup,” Black said.

Black, an attorney by trade, also worked with a patent attorney.

And her husband, who has an MBA, helped her clear other hurdles as she nailed down a manufacturer, designed packaging and drafted a marketing plan.

Her company’s website,, launched June 1. The bands, which sell for $6.95 for pre-orders, can be ordered and customized with a child’s picture on the website.

So far, Black has tallied about $800 in sales. A limited number of pre-orders have arrived, and the main shipment of 10,000 bands is expected next month.

The market for baby and children’s clothes, toys and accessories remains strong, despite the sluggish economy, said Bob Robicheaux, a retailing expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

According the latest Census data, there are more than 20 million children under 10 years old, which translates into about 7 percent of the U.S. population, he said.

And, he added, “we happen to live in a time when it is very standard for extended family members to spend an awful lot of money on gifts and support for children.”

Speaking from his own experience as a grandfather of six — all 8 years old and under — Robicheaux said it seems like he’s buying something for his grandchildren every time he turns around.

That includes clothes, toys and educational materials, but it also translates into small-ticket items.

Twenty years ago, such purchases would have likely fallen into the category of discretionary spending, he said, but now they have been elevated as grandparents, aunts and uncles see them as necessities for the children in their lives.

“I know we’re in a recession, but spending on these things seems to be resistant to economic conditions,” Robicheaux said.

Black credits her friends for passing the word about her new venture, and she is optimistic that her customer base will grow.

“People are always going to have babies, and they’re always going to want the latest and greatest for their babies,” she said.

Black was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 32 and pregnant with her third child. She had a mastectomy and began chemotherapy, and little Caroline arrived safely nine weeks early.

After a second round of chemo following the birth, Black was cancer-free for eight months. Then, the disease returned, having metastasized to her lungs.

Since April 2008, she’s been consistently doing some type of treatment, and she is currently traveling to Nashville, where she is participating in a clinical trial.

Despite that schedule, Black is busy making plans for her new business beyond the bands, with other products in the development stage.

“Cancer is a diagnosis, not a prognosis,” she said. “Who knows when the cure is going to be found? And that’s why we’ve got to keep pressing on.”

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