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    City juggling complaints on high utility bills


    August 12, 2022 - Donald Rodrigue

     

      FORT PIERCE - The members of both the City Commission here and the Fort Pierce Utility Authority Board found themselves on the defensive recently in response to resident complaints over the astronomical rise in their electric bills fueled by a wildly fluctuating and volatile natural gas market.

      Dozens of those residents packed the FPUA chambers during the Utility's July 19 meeting, prompting its members to vote to reduce the power cost adjustment by $30 - the fee it charges ratepayers for higher-than-normal natural gas prices - to offer some short-term relief. The City Commission got an earful from one of them, Barcelona Avenue resident Alfreda Wilder Agnew, on Aug. 1 because its members must give the final stamp of approval to any FPUA rate hikes.

      "This utility bill is not fair," she said. "I think the city should compare the bills over on the waterfront and South Fort Pierce with what you're charging North Fort Pierce residents. I would hate to think of discrimination, but that is ridiculous, $800 and $900 for a utility bill."

      Her comment brought an immediate response from commissioners that evening, who have already admitted to being bombarded by telephone calls and emails with similar comments. District 1 Commissioner Arnold Gaines was the first to sympathize with the struggling ratepayers, emphasizing that soaring natural gas prices are "a national crisis."

      "I want the residents of Fort Pierce to understand that I've heard all of the complaints," he said. "I've met with everybody I could meet with and just listened. I hear your frustration. I'm a lifelong resident of North Fort Pierce, and understand why people would think it's unfair. It was a big hit, and we're working to do everything we can in our power as a Board to make it better."

      Commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr. emphasized that the entire Commission was feeling the pain of the citizenry and hopes to find a potential source of financial aid for residents whose electric bills have doubled or tripled in cost. He recently spoke with City Manager Nick Mimms about potentially tapping some $1 million in left over federal funding to do just that.

      "We have some funds still left from the American Rescue Plan, and maybe it's time for us to look at some of those funds to support our community in this tough time," he said. "I think a quarter of that to help may be a good use of that gift from the United States government. I think we need to have a workshop on that and bring that forth."

      Mayor Linda Hudson, who also serves as the city's liaison to the FPUA Board, wondered if that use of ARPA funds would be legal due to some many federal restrictions.

      "Did he indicate that they're eligible as far as he knew?" she asked, since Mr. Mimms was not present that evening.

      "As far as he knew, right," Commissioner C. Johnson replied.

      While the commissioner emphasized that the FPUA had used both the Agricultural & Labor Program Inc. and Mustad Seed during the coronavirus pandemic to distribute such federal aid, he admitted residents had lamented the fact the non-profits couldn't keep up with the demand.

      "Maybe we can look at some of the other centers because there may be other ALPI providers that we can send some monies to and take the pressure off just one site," he added.

      For his part, Commissioner Thomas Perona placed much of the blame for high domestic natural gas prices on the feds. Like other Florida utilities, the FPUA relies on the fossil fuel to produce most of its electricity.

      "We have to reach out to our federal government to open up some of those drilling sites, pipelines and everything else to be able to get this gas moving because it is the average folk that are carrying the weight of this right now," he said.

      Since many residents have insinuated that Florida Power & Light was much cheaper, both he and Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson emphasized that the investor-owned utility was currently asking the Public Service Commission to raise its rates as well.

      "I want to make sure that everyone understands the other groups that provide power, the FP&Ls of the world, they're at 78 to 80 percent of natural gas power plants," the latter said. "It's just the matter of what it looks like today and the requests for the makeup money from the end-user."

      The next day, a handful of residents begged the FPUA Board for additional relief. One of those was Whispering Creek manufactured homeowner Tina Marks, who told its members the higher utility bills had forced her and her husband to turn off the hot water heater and begin cooking their meals outside on the grill.

      "We've only lived in Florida for four years, but our electric bill in the summertime would go around $200," she said. "Last month it was $283, and this month it was $469. It's a quarter of our income. We are not below the poverty line yet, but I feel like we're being pushed below that poverty line."

      Community activist Mario Wilcox had much harsher words for the Board, directly blaming its members for the high utility rates.

      "I have not heard one person state that any Board member went to their constituents and held a town hall meeting," he said. "You are public servants: My tax dollars pay you, you're getting a stipend, [and] the very people you are oppressing, they're paying your health benefits. How dare you? How could you sleep at night?" He was followed by Sweetie's Diner owner Rick Reed who had been verbally abusive to some FPUA members in July and continued his rant on Aug. 3. "Y'all are driving them [ratepayers] to receive charity," he said. "You're taking our money from the Utility Authority and giving it to the Mustard Seed and telling them to go get it. Why don't you keep it and lower the utility rate and save the paperwork?" During the subsequent Board discussion, FPUA Director Javier Cisneros described a couple of ways the Utility was striving to help its customers who don't qualify for financial assistance.

      "We do have special payment arrangements so they can pay what I would consider a normalized bill and then take the difference and spread it over time so that they can avoid interruption of service," he said. "We are also able to provide them with budget billing, which would help stabilize the bill over a period of time."

      Board Member Barbara Bennett then wanted to know if the FPUA could set aside a portion of the funds allotted to the Mustard Seed for the ratepayers like Ms. Marks who don't meet the low-income criteria. Mr. Cisneros, however, nipped that idea in the bud.

      "The $50, 000 - if it were to be distributed amongst the electric customers - would be maybe a dollar per every customer," he explained. "It was going to be a much better impact to those who would meet those income thresholds."

      At least one member of the public wondered if the FPUA couldn't get the power generated by the FP&L Hutchinson Island nuclear plant cheaper than that produced by the Treasure Coast Energy Center run by the Florida Municipal Power Agency of which the Utility is a member. In response, Mr. Cisneros pointed out that FMPA member utilities are limited to 1.5 percent of their total electric power grid coming from that source. Chairman Frank H Fee IV, however, wanted to know if that figure was set in stone.

      "Is there any way to increase that, and is it cheaper than buying natural gas?" he asked.

      "Another city would have to offer it up, and right now nobody's going to give up their share of the nuclear power plant," Mr. Cisneros replied.

      The FPUA director closed the discussion with a positive note on the Utility's natural gas futures.

      "We've already locked in some gas in March at the $6.40 range, which is really good right now, and we already have a portion of our gas from April of 2023 through March of 2024 at the $5.92 range," he said. "So, relief is coming. As we meet additional thresholds with futures, we'll be able to lock-in a lot more of our gas and remove ourselves from the volatility of the market."

      The day after the meeting, the FPUA announced it would temporarily waive all late fees, suspend service disconnections for non-payment and reconnect customers who'd been disconnected between August 1 and August 4 for non-payment of the July bills.

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