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Taxpayers stuck with higher bills after Rock Hill raises electric rates

Her name is Sallie Pickett, and at 69, retired from a lifetime of working in a Johnson & Johnson factory, she walked into the Rock Hill City Hall on Tuesday to pay her utility bill.

The bill had a big number on it - $143.

She, like so many on a fixed income, has not had a raise in years. The beginning of this year, the fourth year of the worst recession in a lifetime, has been a juggling act of paying bills.

Jugglers always drop something. A dropped bill can mean a dark house.

And now, the city of Rock Hill, with its brand new $32 million building that houses electricity trucks - opened with much fanfare - considers raising electricity rates again this year after the Piedmont Municipal Power Agency told the city its wholesale cost is going up 6.7 percent.

That comes after a raise in rates in the past few consecutive years - meaning Pickett's bill is rising like a geyser but her money is not rising.

"The increase is just too much," said Pickett. "How do they expect people to pay it?"

In Rock Hill, how people expect to pay does not matter. What matters to the city is expenses are going up. This is a city that is building a $4 million bicycle track and owns a soccer complex worth more than $10 million - and those nice warm garages.

The City Council, who must approve any hikes, received almost the same explanation as last year and the year before on Monday night.

The cost of power keeps going up, says a bureaucrat from the company that sells Rock Hill its electricity, so the city can then sell that power to people such as Sallie Pickett and Jackie Heath.

Out of City Hall, after paying an electricity bill of $272, came Jackie Heath, age 32, with four kids. Heath works third-shift making hospital and pharmaceutical kits. His rent is $550 a month. His electricity bill is more than half the cost of rent, and will go up - again.

Heath will do anything to make sure his kids have heat and lights. His kids come first.

"Where do they think anybody is going to get the money to pay these bills?" asked Heath. "Nobody has any extra money, or any more money. Wages are not going up."

Also at City Hall on Tuesday was a student named Stephanie Treadway, 24, whose apartment electric bill was $172. She had $120, so she paid $120. The other $52 will have to wait until she has another $52.

"An increase, again, is not fair to the people who pay the bills - us," said Treadway.

Rock Hill is not alone in asking for more money when nobody has any money. Another local provider outside the city limits, Duke Energy, last year asked South Carolina for a 15 percent increase for this coming year during the horrible recession that includes near-record joblessness and poverty.

Duke, which saw profits drop to a paltry $288 million at the end last year, settled in January for a 6 percent increase.

Yet no working person anywhere has had a raise of 6 percent - or even 2 percent.

Rock Hill, a city soon to market competitive bicycling, is a city with at least 20 percent of the population under the federal poverty level as it looks at increasing electricity rates.

In the past year, Carolina Community Actions, an emergency assistance program that uses federal dollars for emergency assistance for the poorest people who are on the verge of disconnection from utility service, saw its budget sliced.

Yet the need, people asking for help, is larger by far than ever before.

"If the rates go up, how are people going to pay bills when they can't pay them now?" wondered Mary Reid, state program director for Carolina Community Actions.

Paul McClure was waiting outside Carolina Community Actions Tuesday as his wife and aunt hoped for a miracle to keep the lights on.

"The only thing this city hasn't raised is a job," he said. "They raise prices, but nobody is working to pay the prices."

Rates would go up for everybody - not just homes.

Johnnie "Boggie" King - guitar player and TV repairman and a lot more - still at 72 runs a shop on West Main Street. Like all small businesses, he has suffered in the recession.

Even guitar players who have played for the Queen of England, the coolest cats like Boggie, have to pay the utility bill to keep cool.

'Good Golly Miss Molly'

"My electric bill has gone up 15 percent in three years, and now another hit," Boggie said Tuesday. "Goll-ee. Good Golly Miss Molly. Their prices gonna put an old man out the door and outta business, is what this is."

On the other side of downtown is Tom's Body Shop, 35 years in the collision business. Bruce and Buffie Gardner own and run the place with a smile and fairness. Insurance rates for repairs, the bulk of their work, haven't gone up, Buffie Gardner said.

But the shop has to be lighted, cooled, heated. Try welding a fender without electricity.

An average power bill of $500 a month, raised by possibly 6.7 percent, means an increase of $33.50 a month on rates that have gone up each year for years. Multiplied by 12 months, the Gardners could be on the hook for another $402 a year, just to keep the lights on.

"We have to have power - the increase is almost like a 13th payment, an extra month," said Buffie Gardner. "What am I supposed to do? We can't do anything about it."

Buffie Gardner, so warm and decent, said she will do what she always does: Pray about it.