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Village Council — Utility bills elicit concerns

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Many villagers have been surprised this month by higher-than-expected utility bills.

“The increased usage in July coupled by the rate increase has hit some people hard,” said electricity consultant John Courtney at Village Council’s Aug. 15 meeting.

At the meeting, Council and Village staff responded to concerns expressed in six letters from citizens regarding high bills, along with several who spoke at the meeting.

“I keep thinking of all these people who say their landlords will raise their rent and they can no longer afford to live here,” said Sabrina Jewett, who had received a bill in excess of $500. “If we keep rushing all these people out of town, who will live here?”

This month’s utility bill increases stem from a variety of factors, according to Assistant Village Manager Melissa Vanzant.

First, several rate hikes have gone into effect this year, with a 30 percent rate hike in water rates, which also affects sewer rates, taking effect last January. Then, July was the first month an electric rate increase, estimated at about 13 percent for residential users, went into effect. July was also the month that electric usage increased by about 50 percent in many homes due to air conditioning during a hot summer month.

“There was a tremendous amount of change in the utility rates in the last seven months,” Vanzant said.

Coupled with the rate change were changes to utililty billing systems, with all electric meters replaced in recent months and water bills calculated on a new system, using monthly billing rather than quarterly. The Village’s dated computer software struggled to handle all the change, according to Vanzant.

“We put a massive amount of change on the software in a short time,” she said.

Consequently, some of the higher-than-expected bills may have been mistakes, although most reflect higher rates during a month of exceptionally high electric usage, Vanzant said. And Council member Gerry Simms emphasized that most of the higher costs will continue.

“I understand that my bills are going to be higher,” said Simms. “We’re a small community and we ask for a lot and we have to pay for it.”

However, there are several options for villagers who simply can’t pay their utility bills, according to Vanzant. First, Village utility staff can work out a payment plan for the bill, as long as it doesn’t extend out more than six months. Villagers can also choose a level billing plan, in which their charges are divided evenly over a 12-month period. Village staff can put citizens in touch with federal or state programs that might be able to offer assistance, depending on the person’s income.

Village staff can also send a meter reader out to a property to re-read a meter, or the meter can be tested, although this will involve a charge of $50 if no problem is found.

“If you have problems, your first step is to stop into the utility office,” Vanzant said.

Villagers who can’t work out a solution with utility office staff can take their problem to the Utility Dispute Resolution Board, a public body that hears villagers’ complaints.

The utililty office is open from 7:30 to 3:30 Monday through Friday at the Bryan Community Center, and utility employees will look closely at recent bills and compare them with past usage, according to Vanzant. The number to call is 767-7202.

Utility rate hikes went into effect this year for a variety of reasons, according to a timeline on rate increases prepared by Vanzant. Water rate hikes were necessary to help pay for the new water plant and other capital projects, and before this year electric rates had not been raised in more than 30 years, according to Council President Karen Wintrow.

“Some members of Council didn’t do our jobs,” she said regarding the lack of rate hikes in the past.

Moriah Johnson spoke to Council of her concerns regarding the recent rate hikes, which led to her organization last week of a community meeting to find solutions to the rising cost of living in Yellow Springs.

“For families and senior citizens, this is devastating,” she said of the rate hikes. “People can’t afford to live here.”

Council member Judith Hempfling said that the Village Energy Board is looking into ways to help villagers conserve their energy use.

In other Aug. 15 Council business:

• Council approved a resolution for a temporary easement that allows a gravel road to be constructed during the building of the new water plant. The current road includes an angle too sharp to be used by large trucks, according to Village Manager Patti Bates.

• Council approved a resolution authorizing Manager Bates to submit a grant application to the Yellow Springs Community Foundation to support the cost of a fiber optics needs assessment for the Village.

• Council approved a resolution accepting the annexation of 422 acres of Glen Helen into the Village. The annexation allows local police to have jurisdiction in the Glen, which currently they do not have.

Council’s next regular meeting takes place on Tuesday, Sept. 6, a day late due to Labor Day weekend.

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