PIQUA — The Piqua City Commission worksession was an emotional evening on Thursday as city residents recounted a number of issues with city utilities over costs, billing processes, and more.
The evening grew contentious and heated at times as Mayor Kazy Hinds had to stop the discussions more than once to ask the nearly 50 attendees to “calm down” and “take a breath.”
The worksession was held to discuss the city’s most recently released Utilities Impact Report and recommendations made in that report, addressing a number of requests from the Watch Piqua group in regard to city utilities.
“The reason why everyone’s so upset, the biggest reason, and I’ve been trying to hammer this in since it was released on Friday, that report might as well have been a big middle finger, because it didn’t say any changes recommended from any of the bullet points we’ve been talking about for the last three months, and it was released to the public,” Jey Roman of Piqua, who also runs the Watch Piqua Facebook page, said.
Hinds noted a number of times during Thursday’s worksession those recommendations were not the final decision of the commission. Roman said later that he tried telling people this as well, and he also encouraged people to read the entire document.
The report and recommendations were compiled by various department heads. Larger requests, such as in regard to the request to lower the price charged per kilowatt-hour (kWh) or for other fees to be lowered, received recommendations that no changes be made at this time. The explanation in regard to electric rates went over electric rate adjustments in 2015, which saw both rate increases and decreases depending on the usage. The report noted the city’s electric rates are competitive with Dayton Power & Light, as well as “significantly below Pioneer Electric Cooperative.”
The report also noted that Piqua Power System employees are currently working with Sawvel & Associates to complete an updated cost-of-service study by the end of 2019. The staff recommendation was not to change rates at this time due to that study and due to the need to cover operational and capital costs. The report noted “Piqua’s electric rates are designed to cover the cost of operation of the electric utility. As such, Piqua’s electric rates are at-cost and do not include a profit-margin.”
While staff recommended no changes in reference to a number of requests in regard to fees, costs, and additional options for utilities, other small changes were recommended. Those included a new policy waiving the wastewater fee for pool fill-ups to be implemented next summer and the creation of “a fund to pay the utility bill payment shortage when customers are legitimately short a small amount of money,” the latter of which is now in place. Customers short a small amount of money for their utility bills can utilize money from that fund, which city employees contributed to and created, at the city’s manager’s office.
In regard to the Utilities Impact Report, one resident asked, “What are we going to compromise on that report?”
City Attorney Frank Patrizio encouraged residents to attend the city’s annual Government Academy courses to learn how the city operates, as well as encouraged residents to get involved in city boards. He added, though, in regard to utility rates, “The numbers show the rates aren’t going down … The city has to operate with the black.”
Commissioner John Martin said later, if the city were to go in the red or operate at a loss, then the state would step in and the city would have no control over operations or fees.
Residents were critical of past decisions made by past city leadership, including decisions not to sell electric utilities to an outside entity or not to connect to Troy’s water system. Patrizio said studies were done at the time those decisions were made that showed it would be more cost-effective for the city of Piqua to remain independent and operate their own water and power plants in the long haul, but some residents appeared skeptical.
“Tell me where those millions and millions of dollars are?” Bill Jaqua of Piqua asked.
Patrizio said the savings went to the residents. Patrizio also recounted the reliability of the Piqua Power System and said Piqua’s electric rates are “20 percent lower than the national average.”
Rebecca Nickel of Piqua suggested Piqua’s electric rates were lower than the national average due to the lower wages residents have. Another attendee said that over 48 percent of residents report an income of $20,000 or less.
“Power outages don’t matter if you can’t pay your electric bill,” Nickel said.
Also during the meeting, Patrizio and Hinds made suggestions about household items — such as older appliances, air conditioners, and a lack of insulation — that can drive up energy usage. Residents responded, calling those comments “patronizing” or “condescending.”
The meeting grew heated at times, such as when it was unclear whose turn it was to speak in the crowd and when one attendee was making a comment about base charges for water usage. Another attendee requested the city allow residents to request an extension on their bill due dates a couple times a year.
Hinds suggested assistance programs the city accepts payments from, such as the HEAP program through the Miami County Community Action Council (CAC), the Salvation Army, the Piqua Compassion Network, and local churches. According to the Utilities Impact Report, “the city received HEAP energy assistance payments in 2017 of $35,222, in 2018 of $37,975, and to date in 2019 of 34,517.” The report noted, though, that the city is not eligible to participate in the Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus (PIPP Plus) program through the CAC.
Sarah Miller of Piqua said assistance programs like the Salvation Army, the Bethany Center, the Piqua Compassion Network, and local churches amounted to about an extra $75 every six months. Miller also recounted difficulty trying to receive assistance from the HEAP program when she was caring for a loved one in Hospice. Due to Piqua bundling their utilities on the same bill, it may be difficult for Piqua residents to receive HEAP funds. CAC can only pay the electric portion of the utility bill, so there needs to be a copay to pay for the other utilities.
Other residents asked about what they can do if they do not qualify for programs like HEAP, but still have an unexpected expense come up, such as the death of a loved one. A number of residents became emotional while talking about personal instances where a death or an illness in the family made it difficult to pay their utility bills.
Other frustrations in regard to the billing process, including estimated billing, qualifications for level billing, and late bills in the mail, were also brought up during the meeting.
In regard to level billing, Roman said residents should not need a record of 12 months of payments made all on time in order to qualify for level billing, saying that being on time with his payments had nothing to do with his usage. He suggested a record of 12 months of usage and being current on their account should be enough to qualify for level billing. Commissioner Kris Lee appeared to be in agreement with that.
“Let’s change it,” Lee said.
In regard to late bills in the mail, Hinds also expressed frustration about bills not being received on time each month. She suggested residents call the utility office to find out what their bills are if they are approaching their usual due date for those bills and have not yet received their bill in the mail.
The meeting ended on a hopeful note, though, with discussions about potential hardship programs and other possible changes. Judy Cutcher of Piqua brought up the idea of having an option for residents to contribute to a program like Vectren’s “Share the Warmth” program. Other hardship program ideas were suggested.
Hinds said that the commission has also instructed City Manager Gary Huff to research new software for their utility department that could provide customers more insight into their usage, as well as be capable of combining bills of multiple properties all under the same owner onto one bill.
Martin also called for transparency in regard to any payment plans the city may offer, saying, if there are payment plans offered, the city’s policy regarding payment plans should be in writing.
Hinds added that the city is planning on purchasing amp voltage testers for city residents to check out, with a deposit, to use to test appliances and outlets to check their usage.
Hinds ended the meeting by calling on residents to come together as a community and encouraging them to stay involved.
“None of this could happen without you guys coming together,” Hinds said.
To view the Utilities Impact Reports and recommendations, visit the city’s website at piquaoh.org.
Commissioner Bill Vogt was absent from Thursday’s worksession.
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