LAURINBURG — In approving a 7 percent decrease in electric rates on Tuesday, members of the Laurinburg City Council disappointed a room packed with residents who attended the meeting to deliver their displeasure on a range of topics.
The meeting began with a public comment period in which Mayor-elect Matthew Block, along with a handful of residents, complained about the council’s continued progress in exploring and designing a new City Hall and police station.
The electric rate vote followed a public hearing in which half a dozen city residents clamored for a decrease of 10 to 12 percent that they said is a better reflection of the 14 percent decline in the city’s cost of acquiring power due to Duke Energy’s purchase of North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency’s debt earlier this year.
“I really don’t think that a 7 percent cut is going to be sufficient for us,” said city resident Wayne Gibson. “We need that 14 percent if possible.”
After expressing disappointment that the issue “became a campaign issue and a political issue,” council member Mary Jo Adams moved to approve the 7 percent rate decrease, which will take effect Dec. 1. A second came from council member Dee Hammond, followed by unanimous approval from council as a whole.
“This community has people here that go out during storms and risk their lives to get your power on in a timely manner,” Hammond said. “They have to have equipment to work with, good equipment, because their lives are at stake when they go and mess with electricity, and they have to have the inventory to work with to get your power back on.”
Ed Tucker, a consultant with Progressive Engineering, explained the firm’s recommendation of a 7 percent rate adjustment based on projected costs of purchasing power in the future as well as other costs likely to be incurred by the city’s electric enterprise.
Those costs include those passed along by Duke Energy for coal ash cleanup, the cost of replenishing the city’s materials inventory, and major capital costs deferred in recent years — including up to $3 million for a second transformer to complement one currently operating near maximum capacity.
Council member Curtis Leak pointed out that the city’s electric fund has effectively eaten years of cost increases, operating in the red to do so.
“About 2011 we stopped giving those new rates on to the citizens and we started absorbing it because our whole community was in an economic crisis,” he said.
As a result, the electric fund has operated on a shoestring for years in an effort to keep costs down as much as possible — which electric services director Robert Smith said cannot go on indefinitely.
“We have been working on our inventory that we’ve had on hand for several years now,” he said. “We have our cross arms, insulators, most of the stuff that we use during storm situations: our wire, underground and overhead, is getting depleted. We had an overstock of it so we chose to use it in order to keep costs down, but now it’s getting to the point if we did have a hurricane or a ice storm come in, we would have problems if it was massive.”
But residents at Tuesday’s meeting said that council should pass on as much savings as possible in a city where many struggle to pay the bills.
“What I would like to bring to your attention is the number of citizens that you have that are living on incomes that are below $1,000 per month,” said Betty Joseph.
“The citizens know that if you have to raise the rate, we’ll pay the rate,” Lorraine Stubbs added. “But that’s future, this is now. We’re here to talk about your lowering the rates 14 percent. We want that money to decide how we want to do it; we want to put it in our bank account.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.