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High late fees gets results, annoy customers

Utility customers in this Clark County village who face high heating bills from the frigid winter are potentially facing another kind of sticker shock: late fees.

South Vienna raised the late fee on its electric bills to 20 percent two years ago because it was having problems collecting from some customers. The strategy has dramatically reduced the number of late payments, said village mayor Toni Keller.

She said the list of delinquent accounts has “reduced from a page and a half to a half page.”

“We are only 220 people, so we cannot carry (unpaid accounts) very long like the larger companies,” Keller said.

The policy change, while effective, has proven to be a burden on some. Paula Molen, who rents an apartment in the village, said her $400 electric bill for January was bad enough, but when she could not pay it on time she was hit with the 20 percent additional charge.

“Oh my God, how am I going to do this?” was Molen’s reaction to the bill.

Molen lives in a former church that was converted into apartments with baseboard electric heat. Even with the bad weather this winter, Molen never imagined that her utility bills would be so high.

“I am a single mom one year out from open-heart surgery and just getting back on my feet,” she said.

If she were a customer of Dayton Power & Light, Ohio Edison or Duke Energy, Molen could seek help from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. But since South Vienna is served by its own municipal electric system, appealing to the PUCO would bring no relief.

“PUCO has jurisdiction over investor-owned utilities, so anybody that’s in a co-op or municipality doesn’t fall under PUCO jurisdiction,” PUCO spokesman Jason Gilham said.

Regulated utilities have a late payment fee of just 1.5 percent.

South Vienna accepts partial bill payments, but the late fee still applies. Rates and fees are set by the village’s three-member Board of Public Affairs, which is appointed by the village council.

Electric customers in the village receive their power from nonprofit wholesaler AMP-Ohio, which serves municipal electric systems in seven states. The Columbus-based power supplier also provides power to Yellow Springs, Tipp City, Hamilton and 80 other cities and small towns across the state.

Late fees range from South Vienna’s 20 percent to 5 percent in Hamilton and Yellow Springs. Tipp City’s late fee is 10 percent.

People who get their power from regulated utilities such as DP&L have a variety of options if they cannot pay their bill. PUCO recommends customers begin by contacting their electric company and inquire about payment plans or other assistance.

The Public Utility Commission’s Gilham said that if the issue remains unresolved, people can call 1-800-686-PUCO. Investigators are assigned to act as an advocate for customers. Last year, the state handled 13,000 cases, resulting in a savings of $670,000 to customers once their issues were resolved.

“We see if we can come to a resolution that makes both parties happy,” Gilham said.

He expects more calls for help in response to the brutal winter and resulting high utility bills in January and February.

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