Berlin Debates How To Help Those Who Can’t Pay Bills

BERLIN – As more electric customers in Berlin have trouble paying increasingly higher bills, some say that the town needs to work more closely with customers that fall behind.

Berlin electric customers will see their electric costs rise another penny per kilowatt-hour before prices fall during the shoulder season. As bills go up, the number of customers who need assistance or special arrangements to meet their bills also goes up. The outcry over last month’s bills is expected to continue this month when new, even higher bills are issued.

At the most recent Berlin Mayor and Council meeting, interim Mayor Gee Williams spent over an hour fielding questions and concerns on town electric. Some of those questions were less about reducing future bills than they were about how to deal with the high bills already in hand.

Resident Zena Delaney wondered if the town had a set formula for budget payment plans, which assess a customer’s electric bill at the same amount every month.

Berlin does offer budget plans, Administrative Director Linda Bambary said. Staffers use a customer’s billing history for the last 12 months to determine a budget plan bill. Usage and actual costs are checked every three months and adjusted.

Without a 12-month history, staff considers the history of usage at the house, although that can be misleading depending on changes in the household, Bambary said. Those bills are also checked every three months.

If a repeat offender is due for termination, Delaney wondered, would the town allow that customer to opt for a budget plan?

Staff would need to consider the individual case, Bambary said.
Delaney asked: would staff be more lenient?
“We understand the plight everyone is in and we would look at that,” Bambary said.

“Would it not be worth the time of you folks to develop some type of assistance policy?” asked Damian Preziosi, who recently resigned as head of the Berlin Utilities Commission.

Preziosi suggested creating a fund through the electric utility to help people meet bills.

“I am not advocating public assistance. I am advocating some form of financial assistance,” Preziosi said. “You’re going to see more and more people who are unable to pay their electric bills.”

Preziosi also suggested the town adopt a more flexible policy toward service terminations and create a policy that eliminates subjectivity in payment plan decisions and reduces the burden on the administrative director and the council.

Berlin does work with good customers who need help, Williams said. Customers who have been frequently delinquent are not offered the same option, however.

Berlin is looking into more concrete help, such as buying water heater blankets in bulk and offering them to customers at cost.

Council candidate Jason Walter suggested that people have an energy audit done, which can reveal problems in heating systems, for example.

The town is looking into free programs through state agencies and universities that offer that service, Williams said.

Mark Sabia, an unemployed painting contractor, expressed concern over arbitrary labeling of customers as good or bad. “Every month I come in and negotiate with the girl at the desk,” Sabia said.

Rather than cobbling a policy together, Williams said the town would create one by talking to other utility companies to find out what works. Berlin does not have the expertise to create such a policy on its own.

“I’m not asking for a hand-out. I don’t want a hand-out,” Sabia said.

Williams said something needed to be done. “I have tremendous empathy for your situation. We have to find something that can be applied fairly across the board,” Williams said.

A new payment plan/power termination policy will be put near the top of the electric system improvement list, Williams said.

Confusion and miscommunication over electric termination dates further clouded the issue this week.  Some electric customers facing termination of service reported this week being surprised to have their power cut off on Sept. 10, while thinking that the cut-off date was Sept. 12. People under threat of power cut-offs often can only pay their bills at the last minute and some were counting on an extra two days.

Town staff reports that the termination letter states in bold letters that Sept. 10 would be the cut-off date. A single letter is written and then a mail merge operation is conducted to include the separate account information, making a typo nearly impossible. The letter was dated Aug. 12, however, which could have contributed to the confusion.

Tension over Berlin electric bills is running high in town and such incidents only serve to increase it.

People having difficulty paying electric bills can contact Shore Up, at 410-749-1142, which offers some state of Maryland energy bill assistance and house weatherization programs.