Evansville residents see jump in utility costs

Evansville residents see jump in utility costs

A call for action over escalated electric bills has uncovered a problem with the billing process in a Rock County community.

Christina Rippl is one of half a dozen or more Evansville residents who contacted News 3’s Call for Action volunteers over her high utility bill. Despite swapping out her appliances for more energy-efficient products over the years, her average bill in 2016 was about $290 – a price she says is too high for her family of four.

“The big issue that we have is there’s a huge variance between month to month,” she said. “I see a monthly bill for $240 [in] December, and then the next month was $392.

“It’s really frustrating, because you try to be responsible and plan ahead and have money allocated for certain things, then you get something like that you’re like, ‘OK, so we’re going to have to put these groceries on the credit card because we don’t have enough to make up that difference for this month.'”

The Public Service Commission compared Evansville’s rates to similarly-sized utility providers in the area between January of 2014 and February of 2017 and found the city’s rates to be the highest, but only marginally so.

Evansville City Administrator Ian Rigg pointed to two possible explanations for Christina’s – and others’ – high bills, including the frequency at which home electricity meters are read.

According to Rigg, city workers have to manually read each home’s meter by walking house to house, a process that doesn’t always happen on a regular 30-day basis, depending on staffing.

“If their route was read a few days later than it was normally read, or the previous month it was read early and then the next month it was read later, they could have a 20 to 30 percent increase in their bill – all because the number of days,” Rigg said.

Rigg added that the meters never fail and over-estimate a home’s use, but rather slow down and under-estimate usage.

That might offer an explanation behind Rippl’s fluctuating bills, but the process has another problem, according to Rigg.

The city has been working to upgrade its system through something called an AMI conversion, which will allow meters to be automatically read by hot spots on utility poles in town instead of manually. But the switch hasn’t gone smoothly so far.

“When we first started the process, the billing software and the meter reading software that would transmit the info to the billing software was not communicating well,” Rigg said.

That software miscommunication has sometimes led to doubled bills for residents that could repeat month after month, ever since the conversion started back in 2015.

“What we’re finding is there are some there are maybe a few accounts that are in error back to then,” Rippl said. “We’re going to go through an audit to make sure there are no extra billings as a result.”

As soon as city officials realized the problem last summer, they shut down the conversion process to take a look at the software bug and try to find a solution for affected residents. The conversation still has not started back up.

The Public Service Commission recommends customers give it a call if they notice something wrong with their utility bill.