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.