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Adel Council votes 3-2 to approve change in utility bills’ penalties

City Manager John Flythe advised the Adel City Council during their Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, meeting that the indication at the Council work session on Aug. 24 was to remove the penalty clause for utility bills, so that no penalty is charged as long as the customer pays at least one bill per 30 days.

The Adel City council meeting room filled with concerned citizens at the August 24th work session.

A standing-room-only crowd consisting of many upset citizens filled the Adel City Council meeting room during a Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 24, 2022, work session on much delayed utility bills.

Penalties and reconnect fees will only apply if a customer is disconnected for non-payment. Additionally, the customer must pay their oldest bill first.

Councilman Jody Greene made a motion to approve the above as presented. Councilman Terry McClain second.  Members Greene, McClain, and Walter Cowart voted in favor.  Council Members Greg Paige and Celestine Hayes opposed. The motion passed 3-2.

A number of citizens then spoke on the utility bills issue.

Mary Hayes addressed the Council, thanking them for what they do. She said she wanted to make sure she understands the plan with the utility bills so she will know. The issue with the utilities has been “a big disappointment” to her and several others. Her intent was to speak on behalf of the older people. It is difficult for her, being on a fixed income, she said. “There is no way you can pay an $800 bill with a $1,200 income, and eat and survive. Most don’t understand. I’m going to get two bills per month and have to pay one within 30 days.”

She added that because she does automatic withdrawal, she hasn’t “paid much attention.” It’s fine with her, she said, but she wanted to give examples of how hard that is. Her medical bills were $100,000 per month. If it had not been for grants, indigent care, and other help, she couldn’t be standing here.

Ms. Hayes asked, “Do you think what you have decided on behalf of what we’re doing was the right decision?  We didn’t know what we were going to be faced with.”

She asked, “Mr. McClain, do you feel that was right? … Ground turkey has went from $3.59 to $5.98. My light bill has doubled.  Everything is rising. We need you to make things better for us.”  Councilman Hayes responded, “Yes, we work for you. You don’t work for us.”

Jetta Taylor came before the Council with concerns about the water readings for the November and December 2021 dates. She said the usage was 12,000 gallons for one month, with only two adults and an infant in the home. There was no way they could use 12,000 gallons, she said. They do not water the lawn, wash cars, or have a pool.

The next month, the usage was 8,000 gallons, she said. “Nothing in the home has changed.” The usage then goes back down to 5,000 and 4,000 gallons in the upcoming months of 2022. They have an occasional 6,000 gallons of usage.

“If it was leaking in November and December, wouldn’t it still be leaking today?” Ms. Taylor asked. “Additionally, how can you explain usage to me from 11 months ago?”

She said she’s been told the billing system and usage system are separate: “Couldn’t it be incorrect? Is it possible the data could be switched? Anything that is manmade can be broken.”

She said she was told by City Manager Flythe that “the Council usually doesn’t adjust bills. The Council indicates it usually doesn’t come before them.”

The issue is accuracy on her water bill, Ms. Taylor said.

Ms. Taylor added that the Southern Georgia Regional Commission (SGRC) let the City know in January 2020 and then in May 2021 that they would be disconnecting on Aug. 31 [2021].

She said she was asking the City to consider adjusting her bill. “If the bills are correct, they usually show your usage,” she said. “For December, there is no recording of 12,000 gallons. If my stuff is correct, my bill is wrong. The eleventh month is recorded. If the bill can’t be wrong, the meter can’t be wrong, but I’m looking at a bill you sent me. I’m asking you to adjust my bill.”

Mayor Buddy Duke advised they would get back with her. Ms. Taylor asked, “When will you respond?” She then asked for the copies of emails back that she had provided to the Council, stating that “things go missing around here.”

Charles Hillman said he was present about the same situation: “When I open the bill up, I put it to the side. Eight to nine months ago, everybody was wearing masks. People were in the hospitals because of COVID. Expenses went up for everyone.  People have been rewarded. The City has been. It’s something you can’t see. I’m a disabled person.  You try to get help. How do I have a $300 bill every month? People are being held accountable for something they couldn’t control.”

Hillman said he doesn’t have a problem with his light bill, “but shouldn’t it be a fair light bill? We pray for everyone to help us. These people will never catch it up. Wouldn’t it be fair to give everyone a fresh start and take this away? Income didn’t go up for people. I am fine with whatever you recommend.”

Hillman said he’s asking to look at his bill: “Let’s start over and stop beating each other up. What would Jesus do? You’ve got people receiving income one and two times per month, and working people.”

He said he’s asking to consider, “it’s not right. If the light bill is $700 and you get a $1,200 check, how are we going to catch it up? You need to be working with people.”

Chris Martin addressed the Council. He said one issue he looks at is why they “don’t have a choice as to who we want to provide power to us? That’s like moving to Adel, but telling me I can only shop at Piggly Wiggly.”

The price per kilowatt should also be on the light bill, he said. “If Councilwoman Hayes’ and Councilman Paige’s amount is on the bill, they should be able to compare. You shouldn’t monopolize.”

Adel citizens should have a choice with Colquitt EMC and Georgia Power, Martin said. “If Adel’s rates are so low, they’ll come back to Adel. I would like to have a choice as to who I buy power from. Everybody else around the coast has a choice. If everybody is making freeze cups, people are going to buy from the lowest. Let us choose who we want to deal with and the price.  We are backed into a corner.”

Dr. Treva Gear, representing the Concerned Citizens of Cook County, appeared before the Council. She said the Concerned Citizens group made recommendations at the request of City Manager Flythe. However, they were not directly involved in the planning process. Dr. Gear said they were not active participants in the process and “will not be a scapegoat for failed leadership for the City Council and City government for doing what was needed to forgo and prevent this crisis, with citizens being burdened with eight months of bills and then moving forward not getting a current bill now. She told Flythe that she knew that “what he did was done in good faith; however, those were not his statements in the newspaper.”

She then addressed the recommendations that she had presented, which included:

(1) Earmarking American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to cover all eight months of delayed bills for all residents or part of those bills for at least four months.

“What is the American Rescue Plan funding?” Dr. Gear said. “The same funding that Councilwoman Hayes just asked about that is unaccounted for that could possibly be misappropriated.” [Please see related article.]

“Where are they supposed to go? There was infrastructure money that could be dedicated to paying off people’s utility bills. That’s not against the law if the federal government sent you all that money to be disbursed, especially to our most vulnerable citizens, seniors, people that live in poverty. That money could have been used for that. Why wasn’t it used?”

(2) Asked that the City provide the total of the four remaining months and allow the residents to finance that. “If you finance 4 months or whatever, it could be financed at no interest rate and the people allowed to pay it back over 12 months,” Dr. Gear said.

(3) Another offer was to start billing residents for the current billed month to date for 2022 and provide the total cost of the eight delayed bills, “which nobody has,” Dr. Gear said. “People are asking how much do I owe in total. We are not able to get that information. That is a problem, why? What kind of magic math is being used?”

(4) “Place a moratorium on cut-offs for people who have paid something on one of those eight month billing periods,” Dr. Gear said. “What you have said today is that people’s utilities could still be cut off.  As Mr. Hillman says, we’re going to still be eight months behind.”

(5) Publicly share the formula used to calculate the delayed eight months of bills. “Like Mr. Martin said, how much are we being charged per kilowatt hour?” Dr. Gear asked. “That’s inequity in itself. We smell inequality and inequity in all of this.”

(6) “We need to hold a town hall meeting, just like we held a public hearing here,” Dr. Gear told the Mayor and Council. “It obviously wasn’t a public hearing; none of us got to speak. I didn’t know what the budget was supposed to look like; no one has a copy. A public hearing is supposed to be a public hearing.

“We’re asking that you hold a town hall; however, we know two Council Members are in the process of doing that.”

“I say that to say this, if we are going to take care of the least of these, and you are truly serving the people, as it has been stated by the four people before me, why didn’t you go to the people, why didn’t you think of the least of these?” Dr. Gear said. “You can do whatever you choose because we know it’s been done. You have avoided certain ordinances and ignored those. State laws have been ignored.

“Why are we going to go with, ‘Well, we can’t help the people, cause that’s against the law”?  What can you do? Make it happen people. We are depending on you.

“If you want to talk about these recommendations, we’ll be happy to sit down and discuss with you, and do what’s right for the people. We ask just not for your ear, but we ask for your action today.”

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