COLUMBIANA - A city woman complained to City Council recently about her high electric bill during yet another discussion about utility rates.
The woman encouraged the city to find ways to help residents who may have trouble with the costs during winter months. She declined to offer her name, only identifying herself as a "concerned homeowner" representing those with all-electric homes.
She said the bill for her 1,400-square-foot-home is upwards of $500 a month and she used 4,444 kilowatts of electricity in January. She lives alone in the one-story ranch-style home, is retired and on disability.
"People think that Columbiana's electric rates are really good, well, they're not. AMP does not offer any kind of help for people income-wise. Ohio Edison/FirstEnergy does. Right now with this terminally cold spell if you take three cents off of kilowatt hours I'm going to save $132 a month, which is enough to buy groceries," she said.
The city contracts with American Municipal Power (AMP) for the service and rates are set by City Manager Lance Willard on a monthly basis, based on the cost for power and overhead.
The woman moved to Columbiana in 2008 and said she has been able to get help with her electric bill through two agencies, although only for six months. She added she is above the income level for the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP).
The program is administered by the county Community Action Agency and provides discounts on metered utilities for three months during the winter season, with priority given to the elderly or those with disabilities. To be eligible, a household must have an income at or below the 175 percent federal poverty level.
The woman then claimed a friend of hers in Salem with a home comparable to hers used roughly the same amount of kilowatts and was only charged about six cents per kilowatt used, while she and other city users are being charged 11.4 cents.
Mayor Bryan Blakeman supported lowering rates to offset costs for people during the winter, but Councilwoman Mary Harold Calinger said the city is already "very generous," noting payments plans are available.
The city is also an Efficiency Smart participant, meaning electric customers can earn rebates or discounts on efficient lights and appliances.
Councilman Dick McBane said he was not against lowering rates, but does not agree with "an arbitrary reduction in rates" and noted the city would need to make up the money somewhere.
"You have to cut it out of the budget until you can make up the savings to our customers," he said.
He also recalled that when the city's rates were at eight cents per kilowatt hour they were not covering costs. Rates have fluctuated between 10 and 11 cents since the end of 2011, and remain around 11 cents so far this year.
The city's rates were at eight cents in 2011, when it began charging the same rate for all customers. At that time users were told rates would be monitored and slowly increased over time to make up for the adjustment.
Willard told the woman rates are being set the same way as they were when Keith Chamberlin was manager.
Chamberlin also heard complaints from residents about the rates and was even verbally attacked during a February 2012 meeting by an elderly man, who came specifically to say he was having trouble paying his bill and that rates should be lowered.
At the recent meeting Willard told the woman she is likely using too much electricity and that he and Electric Superintendent Doug Sturgeon would personally conduct an energy audit on her home.
"I believe we can come in there and reduce the amount of kilowatts used," he said.
She didn't believe that was necessary, although she told him they could, and countered that all of her appliances are newer and energy efficient.
"It's not a leaky house, it's pretty airtight," she said.
Council also briefly discussed the difference between the city's rates and those being charged by Ohio Edison.
An Ohio Edison bill provided by Blakeman showed the basic rate charged at six cents per kilowatt hour, but also included several credits, which Councilman Dick Simpson noted resulted in an overall lower cost when looking at the bottom line.
Simpson questioned what the Ohio Edison credits were for on the bill Blakeman provided and told Willard to look into it.
He also said that over the last 10 years every time he has compared the city's utility bills with other companies, the city's have always been lower when factoring in the bottom line.
Ohio Edison customers may be charged six cents per kilowatt hour, but are also paying other things such as distribution and cost recovery charges, and the $4 general customer fee.
The city's rate of roughly 11 cents factors in the cost of power and providing the service, which is actually lower than what Ohio Edison customers are paying, according to information previously provided by Willard.
Willard's utility bill from a few months ago showed that when combined with the kilowatt hour rate, the cost of distribution and other items came out to little more than 12 cents per kilowatt hour, assuming those costs were lumped together.