Our Opinion: Wilson deserves credit for electric rate reductions

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Wilson officials have earned a belated pat on the back for their diligent work to reduce electric rates, which will remain below the state average even after a proposed 1.8% increase takes effect this summer.

Numerous readers criticized the Wilson City Council online after we reported the planned rate increase in Saturday’s edition. While no one wants to pay more to keep the lights on, city leaders are merely passing along a wholesale rate increase from the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency that took effect in April. Wilson Energy is absorbing the increased cost for now, but that’s set to change when the 2019-20 budget takes effect.

The rate increase is a bump, not a spike — the difference is literally a fraction of a penny. Plans call for the retail electric rate of 9.8 cents per kilowatt hour to rise to 9.98 cents. That keeps Wilson below the state average of $0.11 per kWh.*

“Nobody said there would never be any wholesale rate increases in the future, but if we can stay at or below the state average of 11 cents per kilowatt hour and at or below Duke Energy Progress, we’re really pleased,” City Manager Grant Goings told council members last week.

Due to payments on NCEMPA debt, Wilson has historically seen high electric rates. But the city’s implemented an overall 22% decrease from peak rates, due in part to state legislation that allowed the eastern North Carolina public power agency to sell off some of its assets, easing its debt burden.

A Facebook post linking to our coverage of last week’s city council meeting drew 114 comments, many of them negative. Wilsonians who lashed out at city officials on the Times’ Facebook page were a bit hasty.

Goings and the current council have worked hard to achieve parity with Duke Energy Progress, and their efforts have saved city residents an estimated $45 million.

Some residents’ utility bills are still unreasonably high, but the likeliest explanation in most cases is overuse of electricity resulting from poorly insulated, energy-inefficient older homes. It’s not the electric rate that’s giving you grief — you’d be paying as much or more for power with most other providers.

Wilson offers energy-saving tips on a webpage accessible via the shortened link https://bit.ly/2HHuMcY and provides resources to complete a do-it-yourself energy efficiency audit. Residents can also schedule an appointment with a Wilson Energy staffer who will conduct an in-person audit to help them save money.

We think Wilson’s leaders have been good stewards of the city-owned electric company in recent years. That’s not to say, of course, that Wilson Energy is perfect.

The city still collects roughly a million dollars a year in customer late fees and transfers $280,000 to the Community Investment Grant Fund, which benefits charities, intergovernmental groups and special projects. The existence of such excess shows late fees are inflated beyond the actual costs the city incurs.

In a September 2017 editorial, we recommended that Wilson reduce its late fees to make them restorative rather than punitive, and if it’s determined to collect more than it needs, that city leaders spend the money to either defray consumer electric costs or create an interest-bearing risk management account that would eventually replace residential customer deposits.

Lowering late fees or using late-payment profits to phase out deposits would generate some goodwill for Wilson Energy, and that seems to be precisely what it needs. Despite the substantial savings officials have brokered, many Wilsonians have long memories and remain sour on their electric service provider.

Perhaps our headline was partly to blame, but the small electric rate bump overshadowed the good news in Wilson’s $253.5 million budget — no tax hike. After a 2-cent increase in property taxes last year, homeowners will continue to pay 57 ½ cents per $100 in assessed value.

The bottom line here is that our 1.8% rate increase doesn’t warrant rebuke and remonstration. Wilson residents will still pay a fifth less in energy costs than they shelled out before the NCEMPA asset sale. Thank state lawmakers, but also thank your city council for expediently passing those savings along.

CORRECTION, May 22, 8:35 p.m. — Due to a typographical error, the electric rates were misstated in a previous version of this editorial. The figures have been corrected. The Times regrets the error.