In January the city of Piedmont boosted monthly power rates without notice for four of its biggest customers — Piedmont City Schools, Cross Plains Church, First United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church
For several years the city didn’t charge the four groups the same rate as other customers that use the same amount of power. That changed at the start of the year when city officials began charging the four organizations a regular rate for power in order to cover its own costs.
“They should have been paying it all along,” said Mayor Rick Freeman. “It’s a business, so we can’t be giving away free electricity.”
The city operates its own power department, buying power from the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority and Southeastern Power Administration to redistribute it. Those providers charge Piedmont a higher rate when the city’s customers use large amounts of electricity.
The city passes that charge on to most customers, but the churches and schools have long been exempt from the increased rate.
Freeman, a first-term mayor in his first year in office, and newly appointed utility supervisor Casey Ponder said the city can’t afford to continue offering the rate break to the schools and the churches.
“From a utility standpoint, we had to recover some of the demand that was lost in the past few years,” Ponder said.
Since the city began charging the four organizations the new rate, their bills have shot up. Piedmont City School’s monthly bill increased by $10,000 after the city began charging the demand rate fee earlier this year.
At the same time Piedmont First Baptist Church’s monthly bill increased to about $2,000 from $1,000 after the rate change and Cross Plains Church’s bill increased to about $890 from about $300 after the rate change.
Freeman said he mentioned in a meeting before the rate change took effect that the city might begin charging the schools and churches the new fees, but leaders of the organizations said that they weren’t notified before receiving the January bill, which included the demand rate fee.
“I understand from meeting with the electrical department that they are charged a demand, but when that has been something that the city has done to support the school system and you don’t know it’s going away, that makes it difficult,” said Piedmont City School Superintendent Matt Akin.
While the city gave the nonprofits a break, it was still being charged about by suppliers to provide mass amounts of power to the four entities.
“Whenever the city peaks its demand, we get charged too,” Councilman Frank Cobb told members from one of the churches at a March 5 meeting.
Members from First Baptist Church attended the council meeting to request relief from demand billing.
“We would just hope that the city would try to be reasonable about it and consider the needs of the faith-based organization,” Rev. Philip Cooper, the pastor of the First Baptist Church said at the meeting. “They’re a little bit different than businesses.”
Cooper and other organizational leaders at the affected churches and the schools said it would have been easier to adjust to the change if the city had given them notice of the change. Ponder agreed.
“We should have given them some fair notice,” Ponder said. “It was so close to billing and we knew what we had to do.”
The change cost the three churches and the school system relatively large sums of money, prompting an outcry from some. Piedmont First Baptist Church members attended a City Council meeting to express their concerns and request a break.
City officials didn’t promise a change at the meeting but have since begun working toward changes that would help the three churches.
“We do feel your pain and we’re willing to work with y’all,” Cobb said at the meeting.
The city is now considering a plan that would charge churches half of the higher rate, but it’s not currently working on a plan to provide relief for the school system, Ponder said.
Because they’re operating on Sundays and on Wednesday nights, the churches aren’t drawing power during the peak hours when the city is charged more to supply customers. That, combined with the fact that they don’t operate to make a profit, may justify a moderate break, Ponder said.
Now the churches and the school officials are examining their power usage and trying to determine how they can reduce energy consumption.
“You just have to hope that you have enough,” Cooper said.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.