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No relief on utility bills

By Staff, 12/21/21 9:45 AM

PRESCOTT – Customers of Prescott Water and Light don’t need to hold their breath waiting for better pricing.

Members of the electric committee talked to the Prescott City Council at its December meeting Monday night, giving more bad news than good. The committee, made up of Ivory Curry, Pat Roberts and Satarra Williams, were on hand while Larry Jones. Jr., gave the good news of fewer people leaving without paying their bills. He said the losses have dropped from $69,000 in 2019 to $19,000 so far this year. This was it for the good news.

The bad news, he said, is the city is still being billed at 5.5 cent on fuel charges, which is more than the city is allowed to charge its customers. The department, he continued, will soon start losing money on this. Last year, the fuel charges were around 3 cents per kilowatt hour. Jones pointed out it would take council approval for the department to raise these rates.

Councilman Howard Austin asked how the city can get out from under this. The problem occurred during the snowstorm in February when the Southwest Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) failed to secure enough fuel to provide adequate electricity to its customers before the blizzard and had to purchase the fuel at retail rates. These rates were passed along to its customers without notice. Jones said the interest this month on the $2 million bill is $5,400. He told  the panel the city has tried to get funds from the state, but was denied. At this point, it may take a bond issue to pay the city’s way out, he said.

Austin said if the city did a bond to bail out the department, the city won’t be able to do another one.

City Attorney Glenn Vasser said the city is stuck with the contract it has with SWEPCO and if a bond issue is done, the city needs to see how much it can come up with internally to go along with it. However, the city would still be stuck with the contract and something similar could eventually happen again. Vasser told the council Bentonville had an audit done on the situation and no wrong doing was found in what SWEPCO did. Prescott is also seeking an audit, but, he said, the same results should be expected.

Prescott, he said, can’t afford to buy its way out of the contract with SWEPCO, which would run $18 million, and the city can’t do a bond for it either as it’s not capital improvement. However, he continued, the legislature passed a statute allowing cities to pay debt with debt after a disaster, and the February blizzard was a disaster.

“I don’t have an answer,” Jones said. “We have to pay it or let them come after us.”

Councilman Ivory Curry said Prescott can’t keep doing what it’s doing and survive as a city, and people can’t afford to pay continually rising bills.

One positive, Vasser said, is the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission (FERC) has entered an order and there will be a rehearing on the amount of rebate there could be on the pancaking charges for the future. “We’ve submitted a request for a substantial refund.”

He continued saying SWEPCO wants to settle rather than having a hearing, but it’s not a done deal yet. What’s odd, he added, is the AEP, SWEPCO’s parent company, is on the city’s side, but nothing will happen until after the first of the year.

In other business, Mary Godwin, executive director of the Prescott-Nevada County Economic Development Office, said if the city stays on course, it will be a little below the sales tax collected in 2020 because we’re still dealing with COVID.

She told the council the county lost 687 people in the 2020 census, with Prescott down 195 while Rosston grew by 11. She said she’s pleased with these figures considering how much population surrounding counties lost. She pointed out a lot of people simply refused to fill out census forms.

A meeting was held on broadband, she said, adding people need to fill out the survey form and return them and being sure to take the speed test to show how low the upload and download speeds are in the area.

The state will be getting $100 million to help people in cities and counties with little or no access to broadband, she said. Grants will be available for improvements and build infrastructure for broadband systems.

Turning to the topic of house removal and yard cleanup, Godwin said title searches have been done on 15-20 houses with no liens found against them. The city needs to owner’s signature to allow the houses to be torn down. Certified letters will be sent to the owners of these properties.

Prescott Police Chief Ann Jordan introduced the newest officer to the Prescott Police Department. Tammy Armstrong recently completed training at the Arkansas Law Enforcement Academy and will be patrolling on her own. She spent 25 years  with the federal bureau of prisons.

At the end of the meeting Prescott Mayor Terry Oliver reminded the council they’d been given audit books last month and need to go over them as this will be addressed in the January meeting for approval. The council will also be asked to approve a budget for 2022 during the January meeting as well.