Utility bill concerns occupy Clewiston commissioners

CLEWISTON — Over a dozen residents came out to the Clewiston City Commission meeting Monday, Oct. 21, in a quest for answers over what they consider excessive utility bill fluctuations.

City commissioners and the new city manager were a bit surprised, saying they hadn’t heard any specific complaints of overbilling, meter-reading mistakes, billing errors or other serious issues from the public before that night.

Eddie Warren was the first of several to take the podium.

“I’m seeking solutions about our light bills and want to see what advice you all can give us so we can try to lower our light bills. We’re very concerned about it … some of them are up and some are down. I have a $960 light bill, but my meter wasn’t read.”

From the audience, Utilities Director Danny Williams asked to respond, but Mayor Mali Gardner said, “I’ll give you time later.”

She told Mr. Warren, “We have heard the concerns. We have systematically in the City of Clewiston looked at our rates. Now, utility rates have not increased since 2001.” The mayor showed comparisons to state and national averages. When Mr. Warren said he lives in the Harlem section, she said, “That’s not within the city, but the rate that’s paid in the city charged to residents is the same that’s charged outside the city. We’re all paying.”

“You asked about what we can do to lower the bills, and in the past we have had some issues with meter readers, but I’m happy to tell you that … we’re part of the Florida Municipal Power Association and we worked with them for a third-party provider to come in and look at our entire system and make recommendations on automated meter reading… We’re small compared to these other places that have adopted the auto meter reading … but so we’re starting to look at it.

“On tonight’s agenda we’re going to invest over $100,000 to begin the process of this study for the City of Clewiston. Is it feasible? We’re not sure yet. We know that people would like to see that feature. As far as the rates, we’re very comparable and actually lower than most municipalities … fluctuations are the same for all of us.”

Mayor Gardner, noting that “a lot of these complaints are on rental properties,” said most of them probably have window air-conditioning units, which are less efficient than central A/Cs. She added, “There’s a rebate program for upgrading” to more energy-efficient equipment.”

Several city commissioners pointed out that customers could track their meters themselves and then compare their figures to those on the utility bills; Commissioner Kristine Petersen even said she’d begun to do this herself, to check on her own energy usage, and discovered that she hadn’t been as attentive as she should have.

Utilities Director Williams explained there had been a water leak at Mr. Warren’s home and said, “We adjusted that for him, and his bill turned out to be $183.

“I’ve been working with this community through (Hendry County Commissioner) Emma Byrd very hard, and what we’ve been doing is reading some of the meters like five days in a row. The problem that we see is a lot of A/C issues and it’s not being addressed. You can’t run them continuously on 70 to 75; they need to put it on 80… so we’re stressing that to these people. We’re No. 2 as a low-cost provider in the United States. And in the state, we’re number seven, just behind FPL,” Mr. Williams said. He related that those ratings were according to two studies, one by the Jacksonville Electric Agency and the other by FMPA.

Mr. Warren also complained about calls not being returned. Ms. Gardner asked him to provide dates “because our system does log calls. We care about customer service.” She said people should keep a record of contacts with the city so that issues can be tracked down.

‘Summer months in the fall’
Resident Levita Holmes said, “I just want to reiterate a couple of things. We’re not debating the rates; that’s not the issue. I myself have had an escalated bill for the past two months. They did a work order, but no one came out. We took a picture of our meter and sent it in … People don’t think their meters are being read … Something is going on.”

Mayor Gardner said, “All of our bills have been higher because we’re experiencing summer months in the fall.”

Commissioner Melanie McGahee said, “Usage and efficiency affect your bills and that’s on you. The only thing the city controls is the rate, which is as low as the others.”

Mr. Williams said, “It could be a lot of things. It could be your water heater… remember, window units don’t have thermostats … you can’t run them all day.” He said he has been out in the field a lot and noticed unoccupied homes with window A/C units running constantly.

Mayor Gardner asked him about meter reading, and he admitted there were some problems with readers, and one had been let go and replaced.

Ms. McGahee suggested testing the meters of “those 10 or 12 people who said there’s a problem.”

City Manager Randy Martin said he’d seen problems like these pop up throughout his long municipal experience. “Almost always, I think always, it’s been the result of major fluctuations in temperatures.

“Today in the paper there was an article about this being one of the hottest Octobers on record. I think since I’ve been here in July, it’s been hot as Hades, really high actual feels-like temperatures, and it hasn’t run me out of Florida but it has been unusually high, not just here but all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

“Responsibility is on all parties’ side. We obviously need to make sure our equipment is running properly. We certainly can do tests, and we’re willing to track your bills with a temperature chart from the weather service. I haven’t had any feedback on this but staff has kept me informed. It’s all in our human habits, so this is not falling on deaf ears. We need our customers’ help.”

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