Utility customers protest high bills

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By Cindy Simpson

Almost 60 disgruntled Harriman Utility Board customers turned out Tuesday evening to express their dismay over the cost of their utilities.

The crowd filled the American Legion Hall directly behind the utility board offices, where they listened to others and shared stories of their own experiences with the utility.

Local attorney Donice Butler, who organized the event, said she was seeking answers to the many questions and speculations about utility practices.

“I want to present these questions to the board,” she said. “Just this first meeting, there is enough of us here they’ve got to listen.”

Marty Taylor described potentially cost-saving actions that could be taken — from selling or merging with other utility companies to dissolving and having the city council serve as the board.

Taylor believed a last resort would be a citizen-led referendum to sell or merge the utility.

Getting their voices heard is the focus for the immediate future.

The group plans to have another meeting on Tuesday, April 26.

They also discussed attending the next Harriman Utility Board meeting to speak to that board directly.

Ratepayers were also encouraged to ask candidates in the upcoming municipal election to take a stand for utility customers.  

Butler pointed out how other community movements played a role in getting change at public utilities across the state.

“As a group we can make change. I mean we really can do it,” she said. “We need to pose these questions as a group and tell them we’re tired of it, explain it to us,” Butler said.

Several in attendance were no longer HUB ratepayers, but supported change because, they said, their utility bills forced them to move from the city.

“I couldn’t afford my utility bills and my rent,” said Elizabeth Schafer, who now is served by Rockwood Electric Utility. “I can’t remember one bill being under $400.”

Attendees were asked to fill out surveys that asked how long they’ve been a customer for the utility; whether they own or rent their home; the approximate square footage of their home; whether they heat with electric, gas or both; whether they consider their home energy efficient and the average utility bill.

One of the biggest questions was whether meters are accurate.

“Meter readers do make mistakes,” said one disgruntled customer who has worked for other utilities in the past.

One resident claimed that mud covered her meter, and when meter readers came to check it the mud still covered the window for the spinning dial.

Others asked about where the $1 on each bill from Warming the Hearts goes and wondered if all those funds really reach struggling utility customers.

Some ratepayers said they had been recipients of money for Warming the Hearts with the provision that the recipient have the money for the remaining part of the bill before receiving asistance.

Also questioned were trip fees to check meters or to leave late notices.

“Aren’t they already getting paid to ride around in the truck and do these various tasks?” Butler asked. “Why are we paying their salary and their overtime and their comp time and their double time and still paying them to do these extra things?”