Program to lower utility bills considered

Published 9:49 pm Sunday, August 19, 2018

Last week, the LaGrange City Council heard a proposal for a program that could potentially save low income residents money on their utility bills.

Representatives from The Ray C. Anderson Foundation and Groundswell approached the council with the Pay As You Save program, which would allow residents to save money on their utilities through energy saving upgrades. Residents would then pay back the program with a percentage of their utility savings. The program would solve one of the city’s most commonly heard complaints over high utility bills despite rates lower than surrounding utility providers.

“One of the most common things that I have heard since I came on council or became mayor — which is going on 9 years with council and mayor — is I have heard complaints about high utility bills,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said. “In fact, Ricky Wolfe in his comments from DASH, referenced that sometimes people’s utility bills were higher than their rent. It has always been a source of frustration for me because I know and council knows that our electricity rates are lower than just about anybody around. They are lower rates than Diverse Power, Georgia Power, Hogansville, West Point, Newnan, etc.”

Through research, city staff believe that the biggest contributor to unusually high utility rates in some homes is energy inefficiency, and while the problem is easily spotted, it can prove prohibitively expensive for many residents to fix. 

“A lot of residents in LaGrange — particularly in the lower income areas of town — do not have well insulated houses,” Thornton said. “They have houses that leak like sieves. … So, even though we are paying the same rate per therm or per kilowatt hour, some people’s houses are just leaky. Some people’s houses are less energy efficient. Therefore, their utility bill, no matter how they manage the thermostat, is going to be higher.”

Legally, the city cannot spend public money on private property, so city employees have been left to search for a creative solution to help residents who are stuck in a cycle of expensive and energy inefficient housing. The PAYS program is a possible solution.

While few details of how the program would work in LaGrange have been determined, council members agreed that it would be best to focus on homes in low income areas where residents could not otherwise afford the improvements. Michelle Moore, the CEO of Groundswell, pointed out that for some families even the savings of a few dollars could make a big difference. 

“If it is a lower income family who is struggling to make ends meet, then even $20, $30 a month back in people’s pockets is going to mean financial stability,” Moore said. “It is grocery money. It is a little bit of additional resilience, and it is going to help the community.”

Harriett Langford, the trustee of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, highlighted how the program could improve quality of life and health for residents.

Moore explained that the program would allow participants to keep a portion of the utility savings while charging a small premium to pay off the city’s investment.

“I [as a participant] would pay a little more per kilowatt hour, but I am going to reduce my utility bill from the very first month that I am participating,” Moore said. “So, say 20 percent of the savings are going to go to me and 80 percent of savings go back to the city to pay back that investment that has been made to put that energy efficiency in the place I live. Because it is a rate that I am signing up for, I am not assuming debt. That payment follows the meter. It doesn’t follow the person.”

The percentages could vary in the final form of the program, but the concept will remain the same. Moore also emphasized the program’s impact on local contractors and local jobs.

City Manager Meg Kelsey worried that residents who are promised energy savings under the program could feel misled if temperature extremes result in higher bills despite the improvements. Moore said that the program would not define a specific dollar amount in savings, and residents taking part in the program would save even during seasonal highs and lows.

Because the city makes the majority of its operating funds through utilities, the council also briefly discussed the impact of lower rates on the city’s budget. Council Member Nathan Gaskin suggested that the city use the program as a selling point to attract future residents.

Topics like who would agree to the program when a landlord owns a property and what to do when energy inspections reveal unsafe living conditions will need to be determined before the program is implemented. The council did not take action on the proposal on Tuesday, but Thornton did suggest the community development fund as a possible source of funding to begin the program if the council does decide to pursue it.