Ire rises over fee increase

Those who can’t afford AFN lament paying off the debt

By Vickie Aldous
Ashland Daily Tidings

Nova Gregg survives on a caregiver’s salary by going without a car, cable television and Internet service.

She doesn’t understand why she should be paying $7.50 more per month on her electricity bill to close the Ashland Fiber Network’s financial shortfalls.

Earlier this month, the Ashland City Council decided to add the fee to all electric bills at the beginning of October. Revenues from the fee, combined with cable television rate increases planned for January 2006, will raise enough money to make the payments on AFN’s $15.5 million loan.

Gregg said while the fee may not have much impact on wealthier residents, it will hit the working poor and seniors on fixed incomes in October just as cooler weather comes and drives up their heating costs.

“People who work in the shops and the hotels, a lot of them are making minimum wage. It’s a struggle. People are having to go into their food money to pay that amount,” she said.

The net impact of the fee will be blunted slightly by a Tuesday night city council meeting to slightly lower electric rates themselves in response to declining Bonneville Power Administration wholesale power costs. A customer using 2,000 kilowatts of electricity per month will see a $1.40 monthly reduction effective immediately.

With the combined changes, a typical customer will pay an extra $6.10 per month, or $73.20 a year.

Mayor John Morrison said earlier this week that he had heard six or seven complaints from people about the AFN fee.

“Their objections are entirely predictable,” he said, noting that the city council is concerned about the impact on low-income people and understands that people who don’t subscribe to AFN may be angry.

He said the council was faced with tough decisions about how to make AFN’s debt payments.

“I hope they realize we’re taking steps to alleviate problems. Something had to be done from an economic standpoint until we decide what to do,” Morrison said.

This summer, the council formed the AFN Options Committee, which is exploring future alternatives for the city’s cable television and Internet service that range from selling it off, to investing in new products in an effort to boost revenues. AFN currently is about breaking even, but is saddled with debt from its construction and past operating costs.

Low-income residents who have trouble paying their winter electricity bills can apply to the Ashland Low-Income Energy Assistance Program.

The city council allocates $67,000 each year to help residents with household incomes that do not exceed 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines. A one-person household can earn up to $11,963; a two-person household can earn up to $16,038; a three-person household can earn up to $20,113; and a four-person household can earn up to $24,188 annually and still qualify for assistance, according to Ashland Customer Service Division Manager Pat Woods.

Households with senior or disabled people can have their electric bills cut in half for up to six months and other households can enjoy the same savings for up to three months, according to city information.

Last winter, 335 households participated in the program, Woods said.

To request an application packet, call 552-2038 and leave a name and address.

Residents who want to help others pay their electric bills can make donations of any size to the Ashland Heat Program, which helps qualified low-income people. Residents can also donate through the Ashland Round-Up Program, in which their monthly electricity bills are rounded up to the nearest dollar for a maximum contribution of 99 cents each month. Call 488-5304 for information.

Woods urged anybody who is able to participate in the donation programs to do so.

“That is really a help to a lot of our less-fortunate residents,” she said.

Woods said notices are being sent out in customers’ electricity bills of the city council decision to add the $7.50 AFN fee. Not everyone has received a notice yet because bills are sent out on staggered cycles, but the utility billing office is already fielding complaints, she said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 482-3456 x 3018 or [email protected].

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