Utility bills spark questions for council

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@aimmediamidwest.com

Resident John Ritter questions utility bill totals during Monday’s Amherst city council meeting.

Resident John Ritter questions utility bill totals during Monday’s Amherst city council meeting.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times

Robert Eiborg said his power bill has gone from $55 per month to $110.

“I don’t have air conditioning. I don’t have any of that stuff going on,” he told Amherst city council on Monday, frustration painted on his face.

Shuffling through papers, mayor Mark Costilow offered Eiborg a report on his electricity usage for the past 18 months and said he didn’t see the same increases the resident claimed. They parted ways without much resolution.

About a dozen people showed up to the council meeting and several took the lectern to challenge their bills and ask questions about how and why utility charges seem to have jumped recently.

They voiced suspicions that the increases may be tied to the installation of new electricity and water meters.

Jessica Roberts is selling a Franklin Avenue home and said her bill has quadrupled during the time it has been vacant. An air conditioner and dehumidifier run inside the 900-square-foot residence but all other appliances have been disconnected, leaving her to wonder why her power bill went from around $100 to $400 when it should have instead sharply decreased.

Meanwhile, the bill for the 4,000-square-foot house where her family lives reportedly was a little more than half the cost.

“We’ve noticed an increase in our bills as well, mostly in the usage,” said another resident, John Ritter.

He noticed increases as soon as his new meters were installed. That’s when his bill indicated 19,000 gallons of water had been used, up from the norm of about 10,000 gallons. Electric usage has also jumped, he said.

Utilities department workers told him the increases were due to it being a hot summer, but Ritter noted 2018 had the fourth-hottest summer on record and that the past few have been just as scorching.

Costilow responded that the way hot days are spread out will affect certain bills. For instance, if there are many 90-degree days packed into July instead of evenly distributed through the summer months, it can shoot the July bill skyward.

May is generally the lowest-usage month and the jump from moderate spring to sweltering summer bills can be jarring, he said.

Utilities workers also told Ritter the new meters are more accurate and track usage better than the older analog models.

Ritter said he can’t afford a $400 to $600 utility bill every month and was looking for answers on behalf of many people with questions.

Many of those who attended the meeting to speak on utility bill issues belong to an Amherst Facebook page where complaints have been plentiful in the past couple of weeks.

Costilow said he does not monitor the page, which is privately run by Lorain resident Jim Polaczynski and has no official tie to the city. But after hearing about complaints posted there, Costilow said he pulled up the bills of about 12 people who said their utility bills were out of control.

He said one man complained he’s never had a bill in excess of $200 but his billing history showed it has been over that amount nearly every month.

Costilow defended the city’s billing, saying rates are set based on recommendations from energy consultant John Courtney and that postcards about rate and meter changes were mailed to every resident in the city.

He also laid out the labyrinthine calculations for arriving at power rates, from the cost of buying energy at ever-fluctuating market costs to the controversial power purchase adjustment that appears on bills.

The issue is somewhat clouded by a council decision to move a state kilowatt-hour tax from the utilities fund to Amherst’s general fund at Courtney’s suggestion, as well as built-in increases to remedy a decades-old rate structure that was causing financial losses.

Costilow also said there is a piece of equipment the city is considering buying — it has a $6,000 to $8,000 price tag — to test meters and make sure they are properly calibrated.

The new electric meters were installed by the Eaton Corp., which has installed “millions of meters and thousands of systems” across the country, he said.

“We talked to them and they said that in all the years of doing this they’ve never found meters that read incorrectly. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” the mayor said.

“I’m telling you we’re not here to scam anybody. I’ve seen that word used kind of loosely lately and it hurts,” he said, later adding, “We’re doing everything we can to put your minds at ease. This is a horribly big project for a city our size to give a better service than what we’re used to.”

There’s another remedy, if all else fails: Residents who don’t want to use the new meters can use analog ones instead but must pay a fee to do so.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

Resident John Ritter questions utility bill totals during Monday’s Amherst city council meeting.
https://www.theamherstnewstimes.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/43/2018/09/web1_DSC_2751-1.jpgResident John Ritter questions utility bill totals during Monday’s Amherst city council meeting.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times

By Jason Hawk