Mayor explains City Light cut-off policy; Some utility relief funds are expected

Dee Cruise

 A dozen City Light & Water customers who were 60 days in arrears and who had not negotiated a payment schedule were without electricity on Friday, Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta said.

“That’s people who didn’t come in to get an extension,” he said. “That’s people who haven’t paid us anything in 60 days. We’re asking them to pay half and give them an extension to the end of the month to pay the other half.”

Many residents complained of the high utility bills for September– some reaching anywhere from $700 to $1,200 – because of fuel adjustment charges pushed up by spiking natural gas costs. Two weeks ago, some 60 residents marched on city hall to register their complaints.

Federal and state money to help residents pay the bills has been in short supply – but don’t start calling to apply yet, said Randolph W Ware, director of the parish Office of Community Services.

Ware said his office quickly exhausted $30,000 in state funds, with 75 percent of it going to Plaquemine residents.

Those who received the help were among 600 on a waiting list Ware’s office compiled before the high August bills went out, the director said.

“We took care of about 54 or 55 people,” Ware said. “That wasn’t a drop in the bucket.”

Iberville received the $30,000 from a pool of $5 million Gov. Bobby Jindal made available statewide through the Louisiana Housing Finance Authority, he said. He said further help might be available through the state.

The director said he was expecting $119,000 from the Department of Labor that can be used for utility assistance, as well as for medical assistance and food vouchers.

“We should have that money by November,” Ware said. “Normally, we get that money in October or November.” It would be available for one-time assistance to residents, he said.

The Iberville Parish Council on Aging has some funds for utility assistance, Ware said, but can only pay up to $200 on a bill.

“It’s a very limited amount of money they get, but it is a help,” the director said.

Also this time of year, the parish also gets federal money dispensed by the state.

There’s nothing coming down from the feds at all,” Ware said. “...I’m looking for some funds from them also, maybe $112,000.”

The money is distributed for the while parish, not just Plaquemine, he said.

“I cant just spend the money in the Plaquemine area, but the need is so much greater here,” Ware said because the bills are so high.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen it as high as it’s running,” he said. “The fuel adjustment is more than the bills.”

Gulotta said City Light has been doing everything it can to work with residents to help them avoid losing their service.

A handful of residents have been allowed to pay the balance they owe in installments over a 12-moth period.

Those who do not live up to their agreements will have their service cut off, he said.

“We cutoff every day,” he said. “If you tell us you’re going to pay by the 13th and you don’t pay by the 13th, you will be cut off.”

Unlike Entergy, the city does notify customers when they are about to lose there service and give them a small window to call City Hall to make arrangements to pay.

“We don’t just go yank your meter,” Gulotta said.

Entergy, however, did beat the city on electricity rates in July and August, largely because the private company was able, or required to, defer some fuel adjustment costs for those months, the mayor said.

“We got beat by Entergy those two months,” he said, noting that Entergy billed customers at 14 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 16 for the city. The city’s rate includes three cents for operating its own utility company.

In a letter to the Louisiana Public Service Commission(PSC), Entergy proposed to spread out $24 million in fuel adjustment costs from September to their customers’ October, November and December bills. Gulotta provided a copy of the letter.

“[Entergy] is proposing this deferred recovery in light of the recent light of the recent extraordinary fluctuations in the price of natural gas,” John Avaltroni, Entergy’s manager of rate administration wrote the PS. These fluctuations prompted the Commission recently to declare an energy emergency under [a state law].”

“They have a way of hedging their gas costs and spreading it out over a long period of time,” Gulotta said. “We have to pay immediately.”

Many City Light customers can sign up for a bill-averaging program that equalizes utility payments from month to month, based on a 13-month average.

Plaquemine buys its electricity from the Louisiana Energy and Power Authority (LEPA), a group of cities from around the state. Much of the electricity is generated with natural gas.

 The city has to pay whatever fuel adjustment LEPA charges, based on natural gas prices, Gulotta has said.

“It’s sad, but it’s out of my control,” he said.

He said he is looking at two proposals that might bring City Light customers some relief down the line.

LEPA is discussing building a power plant in the area of Houma and Morgan City, the mayor said, and he is continuing to negotiate with a local plant that wants to produce electricity from waste gas.