There was a public uproar in Chattahoochee this past week over the city’s newly-imposed “storm recovery fee,” tacked on to city electric bills to help pay for Hurricane Michael cleanup, according to city officials.
At a Chattahoochee City Council meeting earlier this month, multiple residential customers of city-owned electric utility complained of oppressively higher electric bills since the fee was implemented. Disgruntled residential customers reported increases to their bills of $35 or more and a commercial account reported a $70 increase last month.
But the city council is unlikely to provide relief anytime soon. The surcharge of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour used is part of the $7 million loan package the city took in December to pay for the reconstruction of the distribution system, heavily damaged by Hurricane Michael last October.
“The fee was required as collateral for the loan,” Chattahoochee City Manager Robert Presnell said Tuesday. “But the city council could reduce the amount as the debt is retired.”
Presnell added it’s a four-year loan but he hopes the city can pay it off “much sooner” and, accordingly, make the storm recovery fee disappear.
The loan was obtained to pay contractors for repairing the 90-percent damaged utility system, Presnell said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the city for most of the money, but that process may take up to two years, he added.
If FEMA reimbursements come earlier than expected and favorable state legislation is passed this session in Tallahassee, Presnell said city electric customers could see some early relief.
The hurricane recovery fee was imposed by the city council by ordinance after two public hearings in December and public notices/advertisements for the fee were published in a local newspaper. There were no serious objections noted at the public hearings.
Filed March 7, 2019 by Bo McMcMullian
Chattahoochee electric rate increase questioned but not changed at council meeting
At the March Chattahoochee City Council meeting, residents complained about recent increases on their utility bills, due to action taken by the council to pay for Hurricane Michael’s recovery costs. But the council was unable to provide any relief from the city, which owns and controls its own electrical power system. “The flat fee is not very flat,” a resident complained at the public input portion of the meeting. “I’ve watched it go up and up!” She explained that her adjustment fee currently was $35.
At the mayor’s request, Presnell explained to her that it never was a set amount. “It never was a flat fee,” Presnell said. “It’s according to kilowatt hours used, 1.5 cents.” The city added the extra charge after Hurricane Michael and is connected with the city borrowing $7 million to pay for recovery costs while the city awaits reimbursement from FEMA, which will be forthcoming. After that, the fee is expected to be discontinued.
“The fee was enacted so the city could survive,” council member Ann Richardson said. “My bill was quite healthy this month as well! We had expected to see about $18 a month and everybody said fine. But it just didn’t work out that way.”
Council members did vote Tuesday night, 5-0, to give Florida State Hospital a break on its fee for storm recovery charges. They voted to adopt the first reading (a second will be held next month for official adoption) of a new ordinance that would reduce the hospital charge from $.015 to $0.0105 cents per kilowatt hour. A member of the audience did question the “free ride” break, saying the hospital puts demands on the city system and that the residents need consideration too. But it was pointed out by council members that FSH buys 60 percent of its power from the city.
City Attorney Miller said there is “sound justification” for the adoption of this measure. “I concur,” Presnell said. “I think this is a very good ordinance and in the city’s interest.”
In another separate but related issue from Tuesday night’s meeting, Presnell soon will be submitting another request for reimbursement from FEMA, this one being for the removal of hurricane debris on private property. The city wants to remove debris that may be causing threats to public health and safety on private property. The council voted 5-0 in favor of a resolution requiring Presnell to first find out if FEMA will reimburse, then obtain right of entry to private property, then use city resources to repair, clean up or remove debris on that property.
“We might not get it, but we’re going to try,” Presnell said. “I want to take a shot at it. There would be no limit on funding from FEMA if approved, 50 houses could be removed if needed.” The resolution explains that rescue vehicles may be hindered if debris is allowed to remain in place on private roads, the debris may be hazardous to public health and safety and water drainage.