Andrew Dys

Rock Hill utility rate hike will slam all

On the hottest day of 2013 so far, passing 90 degrees, waitress Lavada Lauderdale turned 26.

She awoke Wednesday to two kids and an unpaid utility bill from Rock Hill, where the City Council recently voted to raise electric rates again.

And she woke up to a home without power.

“They cut off the lights,” Lauderdale said.

So she took every dime and nickel she had and, on her birthday, rode a mo-ped to City Hall to pay her bill. A guy ran by with two kids to make the noon deadline before his electricity was cut off. He made it by three minutes.

He left penniless.

“I don’t even have a dollar,” he said.

He was told the rate will go up 6 percent in July. An average of $80 a year.

He used a word not printable in a newspaper.

Lauderdale strode past that word floating in the air through the heat of the parking lot into the frigid air conditioning.

“I paid to get it back on, but I am still behind,” Lauderdale said, wondering how she will deal with an even higher bill starting next month.

“If I don’t have what I can’t pay, how am I going to find more?” she said.

There is no answer to that question, although Rock Hill again is raising rates. Duke Energy wants a rate hike of 16 percent. York County’s other electricity provider, York Electric Cooperative, is not raising rates.

City leaders say the electric rate is needed to keep up with the rising cost of buying power from the Piedmont Municipal Power Agency, which is upping its rate by 6.7 percent. Rock Hill plans to absorb less than 1 percent of the agency’s increase.

At the Hope Inc. charity and food pantry Wednesday morning, a woman named Mary Odom held up a Rock Hill utilities bill for $221, showing a disconnect of Monday.

“I have an uncle disabled in there,” Odom said of her apartment. “Who has money next year that they didn’t have this year?”

The answer is almost nobody.

There are no disabled, elderly, poor, working people or even many businesses who had a 6 percent raise or a 16 percent raise this year – much less in the past few years of recession – but these utilities want more, anyway.

Rock Hill’s city manager and mayor said in a public meeting Monday night that at least 6 percent is not 16 percent. They want Duke Energy to be the bad guy.

Rock Hill, in a decade, has raised electric rates 31 percent.

Odom and Lauderdale are not alone in Rock Hill in being unable to pay the light bill.

Rock Hill in May issued 39,261 utility bills, according to city figures provided by a spokesperson, although not all customers have all utility services with the city. As of the end of May, 6,850 customer accounts were more than 15 days in arrears.

On an average day, the city says, 70 to 80 customers have their lights, water or sewer disconnected for nonpayment.

The City Council has to vote once more to make the electricity rate increase final. That will happen the week after next.

The Rock Hill school district, which paid more than $2.5 million to the city for utilities in 2013 for dozens of buildings, will have to pay 6 percent more for the electricity part of those utilities after July, according to information provided by the district.

“If the bill goes up, the extra has to come from the general fund,” said Elaine Baker, a district spokesperson.

That 6 percent, far more than $100,000, will have to come from taxpayers – you. The same you who pays the house bill that will go up, or the business bill that will go up, or both.

Businesses that have not been able to give workers a raise for years, or have cut staff, will pay more for electricity. The city gets more money from the business, the worker gets a higher bill but no raise to pay it.

“Mine’s up over $450,” said Stan Hammond of Stan’s Wrecker Service. “You got no choice. You pay it.”

Today is expected to be even hotter than Wednesday. Maybe 95 degrees or more.

Ola Franklin, 57, hopes it is not.

Because Franklin, disabled, who used to work as a home health care “patient sitter” until her own health failed, watched the heat rise Wednesday from her front porch. There is no air conditioning in the house.

“I was sitting right there when they cut off the lights,” Franklin said.

Franklin did not have enough money Wednesday to get the lights turned back on. She went home to a house with no power.

Duke serves a half-million people in South Carolina. As of Wednesday, more than 1,660 protests of the rate hike had been sent in to the S.C. Public Service Commission, which has to vote to allow Duke to raise its rates.

Dozens of people are expected to jam public hearings in Spartanburg, Greenville and other Upstate cities to protest the rate hikes.

In Rock Hill, the City Council has to approve rate hikes. The city has received no formal protests.

“Maybe people oughta protest,” said Franklin.