New Bern aldermen received a clean review Tuesday of the city’s utilities services.
In July 2012 Hometown Connections, a utility services subsidiary of the American Public Power Association, conducted a two-day onsite organizational check up for New Bern utilities that assessed a wide range of operations, business process, and policies that support the utility’s delivery of service.
Steve Vandermeer of Hometown Connections told aldermen that in July, Hometown Connections returned to New Bern to review the changes that occurred since the 2012 visit. The review again looked at all aspects of the utility’s operations.
“Several things impressed us tremendously,” Vandermeer said.
Some of those things included a strong safety culture in utilities, good management support and the creativity used to keep safety as a focal point.
Much has changed since the last review, Vandermeer said. A public information officer has been added, digital resources, the use of social media and newsletters, development of a good technical plan, and expansion of smart grid technology, he said.
Vandermeer said he was also impressed with the city’s utilities customer service because three years ago Hometown Connections was “stumped” at the large number of payment arrangements for customers paying electric bills.
But he was surprised during the recent review to find that the city met a political challenge to cut down payment arrangements.
“It could not have been easy on you, but it was the right decision to make,” Vandermeer said. “Kudos to you for taking that one.”
The decision that the Board of Aldermen made into policy included phasing down payment arrangements and impose stiff penalties for late payments to collect on delinquent bills. It became a hardship on many customers and led to protests, a petition and marches to City Hall.
In a July 16 email to Mayor Dana Outlaw, Steve Anderson, utilities customer service supervisor, said he could understand Outlaw’s and the aldermen’s concerns and staff was preparing diligently for months to help customers acclimate to the changes.
“When it comes to deposits and other updates, as expected we have some emotionally elevated customers since changes were announced in May and more now as we begin to phase in working with customers while reducing write-offs which are historically higher than other municipal utilities our size nationally,” Anderson wrote in July. “Approximate amount of customers affected is 6 percent of our 27,000 accounts.”
Vandermeer said one of the more significant changes to New Bern electric utilities was the restructuring and sale of the N.C. Eastern Municipalities Power Agency’s generation assets to Duke Energy Progress for $1.25 billion. It led to a 12 percent reduction in electric rates on the heels of a 3 percent reduction earlier by the Board of Aldermen.
Vandermeer said New Bern had one of the largest electric rate reductions in NCEMPA after the generating assets sales and the city needed to build on its reserves to meet any future rate increases.
A challenge not only New Bern needs to be aware of but all utility agencies, is technology advances, he said.
“There are huge changes coming, driven by technology and entrepreneurs,” Vandermeer said.
Some of those changes include batteries with longer storage that can benefit wind and solar power and the falling cost of solar power, he said.
The customer base is also changing, with more diverse demographics, fewer homeowners, more renters, and an aging, skilled workforce retiring from utilities, Vandermeer said.
“It’s a challenge for us all,” he said. “We have to be aware that utilities are going through a period of change and flux that’s really historic.”