Bills get 'electric' during Selectmen meeting

West Point resident Joe Smith makes a point during Tuesday night's meting as Selectmen Leta Turner and Jasper Pittman, along with interim City Clerk Eddie Longstreet, listen.
Staff Writer

The arrival of high electric bills in West Point mailboxes turned an information session into a $100 million political tempest Tuesday night.

And two Tennessee Valley Authority reps took the brunt of it and kept on smiling.

David Sparks, one of the utility's Energy Right Solutions representatives, and Josh Wooten, its customer service director for the region, attended Tuesday night's Board of Selectmen meeting to explain energy-saving tips and remind the community about a planned power outage early Wednesday morning.

But having them on the agenda opened the flood gates, both for Selectmen and the community.

The discussion swung from education toward political when District 5 Selectman Jasper Pittman, who made utility bills a campaign issue when he won his seat last summer, asked the two men the dollar amount of the utility's "profit" each year.

"We don't carry a profit, we are not a for-profit utility," Sparks responded.

Pittman then asked about the annual 1.5 percent rate increases the TVA has imposed as part of a 10-year debt reduction plan.

Wooten explained that more than a decade ago, the utility's debt got "out of control" and the utility realized it made more sense to encourage conservation. At the same time, it had to reduce its debt if it ever hoped to have long-term rate efficiencies.

It instituted the 10-year plan of annual rate increases designated to pay down debt. Instead of taking 10 years, the plan is going to take seven and the utility is in its fifth year, Wooten said.

"With all due respect," Pittman started, reading from a December newspaper article that detailed end-of-the-year performance bonuses averaging more than $10,000 for more than 10,000 TVA employees.

"That's $100 million," Pittman said, following with a, "Wow!"

Sparks and Wooten were silent in a long pause as a few, "Amens" rippled through the crowd of about 70 people.

"You all raised the rates, the seasonal rate and fuel adjustment...don't you think that $100 million would have been enough to cover that fuel," Pittman added, seizing the moment.

Wooten and Sparks defended the payments, saying they are part of keeping salaries low and goal-oriented. The performance bonuses help keep the utility competitive with the private sector. The lower turnover helps keep costs down, Wooten explained, noting the utility has slashed 2,000 jobs in recent years as part of more than $800 million in cost reductions.

They noted the utility's 1.5 percent rate increase this year is far lower than 8 and 10 percent increases by the two other providers serving the state. In addition, the TVA;s residential rates are in the lowest 31 percent in the country and improving while its industrial rates are in the lowest 15 percent and improving. 

When Pittman brought up the county's high unemployment rate, Sparks and Wooten noted the utility's role in bringing economic opportunity to the region, including Yokohama, and the entire nine-state area, including the 4,000-job Toyota-Mazda plant in Huntsville, Alabama.

"When will light bills start going down? Is it February or March," someone yelled from the audience.

"It will depend on the weather and your thermostat," came the response.

During public recognition, West Point resident Joe Smith said his electric bill had gone from $129 to $200 and he'd heard of bills up to $1,000.

"We know what time of day it is," Smith said, lamenting the financial burden the high bills were putting on some residents and the perception among a few people that officials are insensitive. "Y'all campaigned in the park about how y'all were going to keep the bills down."

Resident Susan Lippincott, a 1989 West Point High grad who recently returned to the community and bought a house, took a different approach, saying she was "saddened" by some of the attitudes.

"Let's look for solutions, not who we can blame," she said. "Don't say the mayor should pay it because he's not going to.

"We have to understand that we have to be responsible. I made the bill, I have to pay," she continued, noting how she turns down her thermostat, wears sweaters at home and wraps in blankets when the temperatures drop like they did in January.

"Stop blaming everyone and try to do your best," she admonished the crowd.

Mayor Robbie Robinson reminded the audience West Point Light and Water will work with customers and will check for meter errors. He also reiterated the programs outlined by Sparks and Wooten, including a $75 home energy audit that will list every possible energy-conservation option for a home. The TVA will pay half the first $500 in improvements.

The utility also has free surveys that property owners can do themselves and a free $40 energy-saving kit.

"The cheapest energy we have is the energy we don't have to produce. That benefits everyone," Sparks said.