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Chicken farmer Howard Massey of Wildwood displays an electric bill that has him complaining to his elected representatives. With meters for each farm building, Massey gets seven separate bills a month, and he totaled the surcharges Georgia Power has started adding to them at over $300 for August.
 

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 Homestead Freeze. 

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.   

The Masseys 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 house.”

The Masseys 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.

Note plural: 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.

Because, 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.

Massey was 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. 

Does Dade 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?

“I understood 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 it.”

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 Massey.

Furthermore, said Massey, Dade’s neighboring counties don’t have to pay these fees because they get electricity from TVA, right?

Massey asked the Sentinel to look into these matters, and here is what the Sentinel found out:

SB31 Allowed NCCR

First, Massey 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.

Of Dade’s 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 Commission reports.”

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.

Public Service Commission Regulates Industry 

Commissioner 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. 

Georgia Power, 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. 

The municipals 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.

Dade, 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 investor-owned utility.”

But doesn’t the PSC also have a responsibility to the ratepayer? asked the Sentinel.

“Absolutely,” 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

The 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.

And if 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 box.”

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.”

Sen. Mullis 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 article. 

Rep. 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.”

And Dade’s 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.”


Visitor Comments
 
Submitted By: Laura Chestnut Submitted: 10/24/2013
I have noticed this charge for sometime now but never really looked into it till now. Is there really anything that can be done about it? I was thinking about just not paying that part of my bill but then it will just be added on to next months & so forth & so on if I continue to do this. Its like they got us by the throat on this issue.


Submitted By: rex blevins Submitted: 10/2/2013
robin I hope you will publish my comments and let people know I care about who pays and who does not. At least I check things out and try to do something about things that are not right. It would be nice if our commissioners would watch and see what Atlanta is doing to us. I believe that is part of their job. How about beating that dead horse and maybe they get some stink going.


Submitted By: rex blevins Submitted: 10/2/2013
mr golf could not be more wrong. I was beating that horse begging people not to vote on the 65/5 acre. I begged the school board to oppose the stupid law. The school board sat on their behind and let it happen. Don't tell me I beating a dead horse. Robert get your facts right before you speak. PS yes I will be beating this horse until it is repealed. Also the 65/5 acre came out of the Dade County Commission office not the school board.. How that for a dead horse. At least I am beating. 1800 have signed up for the 65/5 acre. This stink started with Ben Brandon




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