Grantville may have turned off as many as 90 customers’ utilities last week, but some of them are boiling hot today, one alleging the city violated the law while pocketing $4,500 in fees.
A consumer advocacy group agrees the city blew it. Members of the city council have gotten multiple complaints, and the issue will be discussed at Monday’s council meeting.
Mayor Doug Jewell said 60-70 customers were disconnected for late payment or nonpayment of their electricity and natural-gas bills.
“If you don’t pay on time, you pay a late fee, and before reconnection, you must pay all late fees. This has been in effect for quite a while,” he said. “The only thing that really changed is if you pay after 12 noon, it will be the next business day before utilities can be restored.”
Grantville City Council changed the city’s utility procedures in November, and the impact was seen last week.
Grantville resident Jennifer Bullock said her utilities were cut off because she didn’t know the $25 penalty for being late was assessed to her account after she had paid the entire balance one day late.
“They indicated that our services were shut off because the late fee that we had ZERO knowledge of being added, was not paid,” she wrote in an email.
Bullock said her power and gas, which are bundled into one bill, were disconnected at 1 p.m., too late to make the noon deadline.
She also accuses the city of violating state requirements on how utilities are disconnected for delinquent accounts.
“On Dec, 29, 2016, over 90 citizens of the city of Grantville had their utilities disconnected in what appears to be an illegal act played out by the city, through the act of the mayor and the city council,” she wrote. “I know for a fact that my neighbors and myself were disconnected with zero notice.”
The state requires bills be at least 45 days late before disconnection and that customers be notified twice before actual termination, one at least 15 days ahead and the other five days to allow time for payment or acceptance of a payment plan, according to rules the Official Rules and Regulations of the State of Georgia.
City Attorney Mark Mitchell said the city is not subject to state regulation.
Longtime utility-consumer advocate Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch, disagrees. While the Georgia Public Service Commission regulates the marketing practices of only commercial utilities, the rules it sets for basic procedures apply to cities and other nonprofits that provide energy services.
“I’ve always understood that these disconnect rules are not specific to the utilities that are specifically under the purview of the Public Service Commission,” she said.
She urges angry customers to file a complaint with the commission but also to remember when they vote next time on members of the Grantville Council.
The requirement for advanced notice safeguards consumers, she said, because it allows them to make arrangements that could avoid termination. Even if it were not a state requirement, Coyle said it would be a smart policy for the city.
“For whatever reason for the disconnect, they still have a responsibility for notification, especially as we are heading into cold weather,” she said.
Jewell wasn’t sure of how many residents had their services restored, but said some of them would have heat and lights for the upcoming cold snap and forecast wintry weather.
He said many of those lost service due to missing the noon deadline.
Jewell said the city can’t afford to be lax on lay payments because it has to pay its suppliers.
“If you don’t pay your bill, the rest of the customers must pay the bill,” he said. “That’s what happened in the past, and that’s not fair. It’s not fair to the people that are struggling and have their priorities in order. They don’t have tattoos all over their body and don’t have an $800 cell phone or the best car in town. They struggle to pay their utility bill. Some come in with $100 tattoos all over their body, and their priorities are wrong. I’m not saying it’s all of them, because there are some genuine needs.”
M.J. King, who is hoping to fill a vacancy on the council, posted his concerns on Facebook.
“How can a utility supplier change the rules about payment and not include a notification to the public prior to enforcing it? And why, when the bill is paid late, but paid, be shut off due to a newly installed late fee? Was the customer informed of the fee prior to being shut off?” he wrote. “From what I see, this city needs a serious dose of compassion in light of their heartless attitude towards the residents here.”