As the temperature falls, many residents in North Little Rock want to turn up the heat on the city’s electric department. They worry that recently-passed policies will force a lot of people into the cold this winter.
“If you ask me, it’s gonna hurt the low-income,” Bernadette Conley said.
Conley joined a small group of Ward 2 residents who shared their big concerns about North Little Rock Electric’s billing policies during a meeting Monday evening at the Sherman Park Community Center.
The policy changes were approved by the North Little Rock City Council in July, and implemented in September and October. Among the changes are a sliding scale for deposits, based on the credit of the customer, with the credit check fee passed on to the applicant; limitations to requests for temporary or medical extensions; the discontinuance of shut-off notices; the disconnection of service if a payment is seven days past due; and the discontinuation of acceptance of promissory notes as payment.
“You don’t get a notice, you don’t get a extension, you got a higher deposit. Like, y’all are not helping us,” Ramona Dokes said. “It’s just making it harder on us.”
Dokes said she applied for a new account recently when she moved with her young children into a home of her own. “I went to pay my light deposit, and I thought—I was under the impression that it was only $75,” she recalled. “Then, when I got there, it was like, you have to do this credit check, and it was $300. And you have to pay $300 up front, and then two weeks later, you have to pay the rest of it off. And it’s kinda hard when you got to pay a deposit on everything.”
She said she was unable to make a payment, and after her electricity was shut off, she had a frustrating experience with a customer service representative.
“And when she shut my lights off, I asked her, ‘Could I have an extension for two days?’ because I got paid on that Thursday and she cut them off on Tuesday. She told me no. I told her my house was cold, she said, ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna do about your kids.”
Conley equated the process to a debtor’s prison. “If a resident doesn’t have the income to pay the utility bill and they’re shut off, and you’re gonna tack on more deposits, I mean, you’re digging them more in a hole,” she stated. “So, my concern is, we may have families doing without electricity over $150, and some of the deposits that they’re charging are ridiculous.”
Councilwoman Linda Robinson was the only public official to address the group Monday evening. She said other council members were not notified until it was too late for them to attend, and that NLRE officials had not heard about the meeting until she told them about it.
She said the goal of the policy changes is to get the utility back on budget.
“We ended up with $500,000 worth of debt,” she told the group. “People not paying their light bills, or moving away, not paying their light bills. So, we’re not $500,000 now; the amount is less.”
But Conley and Dokes agree that the changes will lead to dark days for many of the city’s poorest residents.
“I feel like you’re pushing us,” Conley said. “You’ve got to have lights, so they’re gonna pay this money.”
“I mean, it’s our lights,” Dokes added. “And now, in apartments, if you don’t have lights and water, that’s a automatic eviction. So that’s why it was so many that came out.”
Robinson said she would be willing to bring up the residents’ concerns with her fellow council members, but noted that she was one of only two members to vote against the proposal at the time.
She mentioned that a future change which may help low-income residents is that NLRE will offer optional pre-paid billing beginning in 2018. If a customer chooses that plan, s/he will not have to pay a deposit.