By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
People in Dade
County are used to hearing Rex Blevins’ voice crying in the wilderness. An
activist for Dade’s schools, Blevins has agitated against Dade’s “65-and-five”
education tax exemption since it was passed, and he actually sued the county
over another tax break that drains revenue from the schools, the so-called
In his latest
crusade, though, Blevins is taking aim not at local government but at utility
company Georgia Power for the extra fees it has begun adding to residential
electric bills. And this time, a normally quiet voice has joined Blevins’
chorus. It’s not a matter of principle, says chicken farmer Howard Massey; it’s
just that the add-ons are costing him big bucks.
“I saw Rex’s
letter [to the editor] and I started checking,” said Massey. “This is an extra
$300 a month added to our bill, just here.”
The farm that
Massey operates with his wife and son is small, just 13 acres of family land in
Wildwood. “We’re not getting rich off it or anything, we’re just making a
decent living, and we’ve been doing it for 40 years,” Massey told the Sentinel
at a recent interview on the farm.
keep roosters in with their hens in the farm’s three long chicken houses;
theirs is a “breeder house” operation, Massey explains. “We raise hatching
eggs,” he said. “We pick up like 18,000 eggs a day during the peak. They go to
the hatchery in Fort Payne, and then when they hatch out they go to the broiler
keep their chickens for 10 to 11 months during the year before passing them on
to the next phase of production. In the winter, body heat is usually enough to
keep the flock warm, and power bills stay manageable. But in summer, with the
need for more ventilation added to the normal cost of chicken house automation,
Massey’s electric bills soar.
Massey gets more electric bills than he can shake a stick out. Each chicken
house has its own meter, and so do the barn and an outside nightlight. Then
there’s one each for the house Massey shares with his wife, Sherry, and the one
occupied by their adult son, Lee.
So in addition
to the bills of $280.04 and $124.33, respectively, for base rates for the two
people-houses, Massey was billed in August $615.07 for chicken house 1; $579.91
for chicken house 2; $666.61 for chicken house 3; $9.94 for the barn and $11.92
for the nightlight.
“I hope you
make a lot of money on those chickens,” interjected the Sentinel.
“Not enough to
pay these light bills,” replied Massey grimly.
besides the base per-kilowatt charges Massey was used to, he discovered when he
inspected them after Blevins’ letter that each bill also contained add-on
charges labeled “nuclear construction cost recovery,” or NCCR, and
“environmental compliance cost recovery,” or ECCR.” NCCR fees were, on Massey’s
house, $14.55; on his son’s house; $6.26; chicken house 1, $31.23; chicken
house 2, $29.16; chicken house 3, $33.85; barn, 71 cents; nightlight, 76 cents;
for a total of $114.52.
ECCR fees were,
in the same order, $19.21, $18.27, $41.24, $38.50, $44.72, 94 cents and $1.01,
for a total of $163.89.
So those two
add-on charges for all the bills put together came to $280.41, and with another
charge that puzzled Massey, a smaller one entitled “municipal franchise fee”
that totaled $32.27 for all seven bills, he was paying $313.11 over and above
base rates, not including sales tax.
puzzled about the municipal franchise and environmental compliance fees,
because he didn’t know what they were for. But he was angrier about the nuclear
construction cost recovery fee because he did know what it was for – new
construction at Georgia Power’s existing Plant Vogtle.
County get power from Plant Vogtle? he asked. Will it ever? For that matter,
will anyone get power from the new units under construction, since from news
reports they have already so spectacularly overrun original cost estimates?
when it started it was only going to cost something like $400 million and now
it’s already up to $750 million and they’re still in the planning stages,” said
Massey. “We’re paying for a dead horse because we’ll never see the benefit of
And what made
him angrier was that his elected officials had approved this state of affairs.
“I understand our representatives and senators got together and passed all this
and they agreed, I reckon, to let the power board add it to our bill,” said
said Massey, Dade’s neighboring counties don’t have to pay these fees because
they get electricity from TVA, right?
the Sentinel to look into these matters, and here is what the Sentinel found
was correct that the nuclear construction cost recovery fee was imposed on
ratepayers by the Georgia General Assembly. Senate Bill 31, which was passed in
2009, allows Georgia Power to charge its ratepayers in advance for finance
costs associated with two new nuclear reactors it is adding to the existing
pair at Vogtle, via an add-on of another 7.5821 percent of the base bill.
elected officials, State Sen. Jeff Mullis voted in favor of SB31 and then-Rep.
Martin Scott – since replaced in the House by Dade’s John Deffenbaugh – voted
against it. The NCCR tariff began in 2011 and is due to end at the end of 2017.
As to the word
“tariff”: Activist Rex Blevins was correct when, in one letter to the editor,
he claimed Georgia Power’s add-ons were actually taxes. Both the NCCR and its larger
cousin, the ECCR, the environmental compliance fee, are titled “tariffs,”
amounts imposed by state law.
And as to
Massey’s dark suspicions concerning collusion between Georgia Power and Georgia
lawmakers, a contemporaneous Atlanta Journal Constitution article quotes
Georgia Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver as saying the passage of SB31 was a textbook
example of how to get one’s way at the Capitol.
“In the three
months before the Legislature convened,” the March 1, 2009, article by Margaret
Newkirk and Aaron Gould Sheinin goes on, “Georgia Power lobbyists spent more
than $14,000 on lawmakers and other state officials, according to State Ethics
But why was the
legislature involved in the first place? And why is a fee imposed by a commercial
company called a tariff? The Sentinel contacted Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, the
elected official who heads the Georgia Public Service Commission, to clarify
the relationship between the utility and the state government.
Commission Regulates Industry
McDonald explained that the PSC is a constitutional office created by the
Georgia General Assembly to regulate public utilities including Georgia Power.
“We set what’s called their ROE – that’s their return on equity,” said McDonald.
a subsidiary of the power giant Southern Company, is an investor-owned,
for-profit corporation, but obviously a power company doesn’t operate under the
same set of givens as other for-profits: Dissatisfied customers can’t just go
to a competitor for electricity, because there aren’t any.
It’s not just
the titanic expense involved in power generation that keeps contenders out,
it’s the fact that the Georgia legislature carved the states up into three
assigned territories with the Territorial Rights Act of 1973. “Georgia Power
has a certain territory, the EMCs have a certain territory and the municipals
have certain territories,” said McDonald.
are power companies run by cities. EMCs
are electric membership cooperatives, such as North Georgia Electric Membership
in Fort Oglethorpe, which services several of Dade’s neighboring counties.
meanwhile, is in Georgia Power’s territory, and McDonald explained that its
charges to the ratepayer are overseen by his office. “By law, we set the rates
of the power company,” he said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the
But doesn’t the
PSC also have a responsibility to the ratepayer? asked the Sentinel.
said McDonald. But, he said, the NCCR would in the end benefit ratepayers.
“Now, to break
it all down into a very succinct nutshell, what you’re doing is you’re paying
interest rates in advance on the construction costs,” he said. That’s a good thing, said McDonald, because
interest rates are extremely low in today’s economy. “Again, that’s going to
produce savings for the ratepayer when these plants come on line,” he said.
Tariff Like A
SPLOST Sort Of
commissioner compared NCCR to a local option sales tax a county or town might
use to build a sewer or road. A surcharge is added to ad valorem taxes and
dedicated to fund that project. “Basically, a tariff is the same thing,” he
said. “If Dade County wants to pass a local option sales tax, they take it to
the people and the people have to vote it on themselves.”
But that didn’t
happen here, pointed out the Sentinel: The ratepayers didn’t vote the tariff on
themselves, did they?
“It went to the
legislature and the legislature approved it,” said McDonald.
ratepayers don’t like it, said the commissioner, there’s a time-honored way to
show it. “It’s a process,” he said. “You
have elected officials. The people can express that next year at the ballot
Back at the
chicken farm, Howard Massey isn’t waiting until next year. “I called Jeff
Mullis Friday morning,” he said. “Yesterday, I called John Deffenbaugh.”
returned Massey’s call, to the effect he would put him in touch with Georgia
Power, but did not return the Sentinel’s calls requesting comment for this
Deffenbaugh did speak with the Sentinel. He said he wasn’t in the House when
SB31 passed and hadn’t voted on it – but people can always call him anyway, he
said. “I want to hear from any and everybody,” he said. “I am listening.”
District 3 County Commissioner Robert Goff says this may be an object lesson
that citizens should watch what their legislators are doing before it’s too
late to stop them. “People wait. They don’t pay attention,” he said. “Just like
the 65 and 5 – Rex Blevins is beating that dead horse until it stinks, but he
didn’t do it before it happened. He waited until it started.”