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Rising utility bills prompt concern, confusion in Amherst

Posted at 5:34 PM, Sep 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-10 17:34:30-04

With a warm month of July and newly-installed, so-called smart meters, many customers of Amherst’s municipally-owned public utilities reported higher-than-normal utility bills.  In some cases, those bills were twice as high as those in months past, ratepayers said.

Earlier this year, Amherst’s public utilities began implementing a higher rate for electricity, something that hadn’t been done since the mid-1980s, city officials said. In conjunction with the new, higher rate, smart electric meters were also installed. The new meters are said to be more accurate when it comes to calculating energy consumption. The meters also wirelessly transmit consumption information, eliminating the need for meter readers.

Officials from the mayor’s office said the rate increase was done to more accurately reflect the current market, while also cutting back on energy adjustment charges, also known as a power purchase agreement (PPA). Because Amherst purchases its electricity on the open market, the price for that electricity often fluctuates month-to-month, depending on supply and demand. Because utilities are bound by state law not to sell electricity for lower than what it is purchased for, any increase in what the city pays for electricity is passed along to the consumer in the form of PPA.

Before the rate change, city officials said customers would often pay large sums of money for PPA charges. However, with a higher electric rate, the PPA charges have been cut down dramatically.

While Christina and John Ritter’s most recent utility bill for the month of July has certainly reflected a substantial decrease in PPA charges, their bill still was still substantially more than June’s bill.

“Heading into this summer, one of the bills was like $170 or $190. Then, suddenly we got our new bill and it was at $401,” Ritter said.

The Ritters’ bill shows a massive increase in energy and water consumption, despite no major changes in lifestyle, the Ritters said. While some of the increased energy consumption can be attributed to a warm month of July, it doesn’t explain all of it. July of 2017 was just as warm if not warmer, and their bill was nearly half as July 2018.

They also have major changes in their water consumption.

“Last month’s [consumption] was 8,000 gallons and it went to 19,000 gallons on our bill. I don’t have a leaky toilet. I know how to check for that. What is it?” John Ritter asked.

For reference, 19,000 gallons of water is enough to fill an in-ground swimming pool that measures 16 feet by 32 feet with an average depth of 4-and-a-half feet. Again, according to the Ritters, the massive increase in water consumption comes as the family hasn’t undergone any major lifestyle changes. Additionally, only three people live in the home.

Many other ratepayers have experienced similar drastic increases in their utility bills. Many of those ratepayers have posted pictures of their bills online. Some of the bills topped $500 and $600.

The Ritters’ $401 bill for the month of July has forced the family to take major steps to identify where the energy consumption increases may be coming from. The family has unplugged lamps and television sets, routinely keeps all the lights off in the house as well as keep the windows open to avoid using air conditioning. The Ritters have also gone to speak with officials at the public utilities department.

At this point, the family isn’t sure what the culprit is — whether it be the meter, a rogue appliance or a pipe leak. And that’s what’s frustrating.

“I can’t make accusations and I can’t be happy with double bill unless I know exactly what is going on. Tell me how to help myself,” John Ritter said.

The Ritters have organized a group of other concerned ratepayers and plan on attending Monday’s city council meeting to present their questions. The group is also planning on having a meeting later this week. Officials from the mayor’s office encourage ratepayers to reach out to them if they have concerns about their bills. Additionally, officials said ratepayers can have their meters re-tested or calibrated upon request. 

Officials also said the utility is in the process of re-vamping what customers' bills look like in hopes of providing more information into energy and water consumption.