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Residents cry foul over high utility bills

Residents cry foul over high utility bills

By Alton Mitchell

The snow and ice that slammed Chambers County in mid-January is having a lasting impact on the wallets of residents around LaFayette and residents took their concerns before city council on Monday evening pressuring city officials to act on the situation in a rapid manner.

A group of more than a dozen concerned citizens converged on City Hall in LaFayette on Monday evening. Aside from the normal impacts of the bi-weekly meeting residents urged council members to take a close look at a rapid increase in local utility expenses during the significant weather event that unfolded over a four-day period in mid-January.

Only one resident had placed their name on the agenda to speak before city council on Monday evening, but her voice echoed for the more than dozen residents that packed City Hall in frustration. As the resident on the agenda came before council she started with the words, “Good Afternoon,” to the members of council.

However, within moments the tone of the room took a different level as the topic of discussion changed to why LaFayette utility bills had gone up by as much as three times in some of cases over that of the previous months. Members of council listen anxiously as horror stories were revealed of utility bills increase to levels as high as $800 in to some cases across the city of LaFayette during the period of the snow and ice impacting the community.

As the resident explained that she was unaware where the increase in utility charges came from because her thermostat was never adjusted during the inclement weather. She presented the city council with a hard question, “What can you do to help, and has anything been started to assist the community?” The horror stories of increased power bills echoed with things such as fixed incomes for citizens who are struggling just to make ends meet each month.

Mayor Barry Moody understood the concerns as he acknowledges, that there was a period of bad weather for about a term of four days in January. He also noted that it is a rough situation because it impacts multiple households including his own. As the mayor continued to address the attendees he advised them that the city government was already on the situation and working towards a solution for residents.

Mayor Moody also outlined how the city handles billing and disconnections in the city. Mayor Moody stated that bills typically come out around the first of the month. Residents have until the 15th to pay the bill. If the bill is not paid by the 26th then service will be disconnected. However, the mayor noted that he is working with other members of council and city Attorney Tucker on possible solution to assist those with difficulties paying their bills.

The Mayor noted that he fully understands a lot of residents in LaFayette are surviving on a fixed income. Mayor Moody along with members of council presented several ideas to help ease the burden for residents who will have difficulties paying their utility bills this month. The first option they discussed was to have LaFayette Attorney Joseph Tucker take a look at the ordianance and see if it is possible to allow residents to carry over billing charges into the first of next month when their next assistance check arrives to help ease the burden. Council members also know that it will not end there and are exploring the option of possibility doing the same thing on the bills due in March, allowing a possible partial extension into the month of April.

Council members are now pressed for time as the city attorney needs to research the ordinance to see what amendments could be made before the cut-off date the city has. The problem was that the city council does not meet again until the date of cut-off, February 26th. Council members voted to have a special meeting held this Friday at 11:30 a.m. at City Hall to see what they can do to help residents.

While members of the groups that attended the city council meeting were pleased that the city is working in their favor, they were also concerned as to why the increase happen. One resident told members of the city council her bill increased from $200 a month in December to $799 in the month of January. Several residents brought their bills to city council as totals showed amounts due on most bills in excess of $500 for the one-month period.

Residents in LaFayette are not standing alone in seeing this increase in power bills following the storm of last month. Several media outlets in the Greater Birmingham area are reporting it is statewide issue with some residents seeing bills in excess of $1000 for one month of service. The Birmingham area is powered by Southern Company’s subsidiary, Alabama Power, the company that feeds LaFayette’s electrical supply.

Alabama Power is offering residents in other parts of the state the opportunity to contact them to setup payment arrangements to get the higher than average bills caught up. Councilman Michael Ellis presented a similar idea before members of council suggesting that the city may want to look at the possibility of allowing residents to setup some type of payment arrangement plan to get bills caught up.

The city council will meet on the issue on Friday morning at City Hall at 11:30 a.m. They hope to have some type of plan in place to help ease the financial strain the increase in utility costs has resulted in for LaFayette residents. Mayor Moody and members of council seemed to fully understand the strain caused by the increase in utility costs, as they stated that some residents have told them these are the highest bills they have ever seen in LaFayette.