Our Opinion: Coronavirus calls for halt to Wilson electric shutoffs

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By staying home and avoiding nonessential travel, many Wilsonians are doing their part to contain COVID-19 and prevent the pandemic from spreading further.

They shouldn’t be stuck at home without electricity or running water. Yet Wilson utility customers might find themselves in that predicament if they fall behind on their bills after being laid off or forced to take unpaid leave due to state-mandated business closures designed to protect public health.

“If I give all the money to the electric company, I won’t have anything to eat,” Wilson resident Alana Johnson told the Times for a front-page story in Tuesday’s paper.

Johnson is a senior citizen who receives monthly disability payments, and she said stocking up on food and supplies left her unable to pay her $308 utility bill. She paid a $20 late charge to keep the lights on for a week. A concerned citizen stepped up to pay Johnson’s bill, as her payment extension was set to run out before her next disability check arrives.

In a Tuesday video message to Wilson residents, Mayor Carlton Stevens pledged help to those who need it. However, there is no formal policy in place to assist utility customers whose accounts are delinquent due to the coronavirus’ economic disruption.

“We are going to make sure that no one, again, no one, suffers whatsoever from this,” Stevens said. “We are going to take a case-by-case basis for the time being, but as I said earlier, no one’s lights have been cut off and at the present time, no one’s lights are being cut off.”

We applaud Stevens’ sentiment, but a case-by-case approach isn’t enough. A crisis of this magnitude calls for a uniform policy, which would likely require a vote from the full Wilson City Council.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy, the United States’ largest electric utility, has suspended shutoffs for nonpayment. The Brunswick Electric Membership Corp. and the cities of Rocky Mount and Durham have done the same.

Wilson has yet to announce a similar suspension applying to all customers affected by COVID-19. City officials are working to piece together a plan.

“We are here to let you know we have your back,” Stevens said.

Those words are comforting, but under Wilson’s council-manager form of government, the mayor can’t address this crisis unilaterally. The council and city government must keep Stevens’ promise.

Wilson Energy has been on a years-long upward trajectory, achieving rate parity with Duke Energy after implementing an overall 22% decrease from peak rates as of May 2019. City officials share credit with state lawmakers, who allowed the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency to shed some of its debt through an asset sale in 2015.

Last month, Wilson earned five Public Power Awards of Excellence from ElectriCities of North Carolina, the membership organization that manages NCEMPA, from which Wilson Energy purchases the power that flows into our homes.

Yet Wilsonians remember the days when our electric bills were among the region’s highest. And the city council has resisted calls to reform two anti-consumer practices — charging high lump-sum deposits to residents with poor credit histories and reaping six-figure profits from customers’ late fees.

The AARP and North Carolina Justice Center say deposit requirements hurt people on fixed incomes, including elderly and low-income residents. Consumer credit reports are used to justify the deposits, but advocacy groups say credit scores aren’t an accurate predictor of utility nonpayment. It’s an unfortunate policy, but it serves a risk management purpose and is common among electric utilities.

More unique to Wilson is the questionable practice of skimming $280,000 a year off electric late fee proceeds to enrich the Community Investment Grant Fund, which the city council uses to fund economic development projects and events like the N.C. Whirligig Festival. The existence of such a comfortable surplus means late fees are too high. The markups function as a regressive tax on the people least able to pay.

Despite these stubborn outliers, Wilson Energy delivers good value and superior service to its customers. Some assistance programs are available. But more must be done, and fast, as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on eastern North Carolina’s economy.

Helping those who face financial turmoil due to COVID-19 will take more than a speech from Mayor Stevens — Wilson doesn’t produce its own electricity and the money to pay for our power must come from somewhere. Yet other utilities and public power communities have crunched the numbers and figured it out. We have every confidence that Wilson can, too.