It was standing room only at the Osceola City Hall Monday night as residents demanded an answer to the question on everyone's mind: "Why are our electric bills so high?"
Four residents had asked to be placed on the agenda for this month's city council meeting, Henry Long, Delores Long, Josephine Love and Brenda Binkley. All four addressed the same issue, high electric bills.
Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore allowed the four residents to share their concerns; he then turned the microphone over to city financial officer Cody Moore.
Moore used a Power Point presentation to explain the city's present financial condition; its debt to power suppliers; the residential power rate schedule; cost adjust- ments; and examples of local energy-efficient homes.
Kennemore then stood up and agreed with the residents, admitting major mistakes had been made. He agreed the city's power agreement with Constellation Energy and its purchase agreement with the Plum Point Power Plant have not worked out as well as planned. He also admitted the city made an enormous mistake when billing its industrial customers.
"I don't disagree with you," Kennemore said. "Our plan has not worked out."
However, Kennemore said the city has a new plan. Its $1.7 million debt to the power suppliers will be paid off by September and negotiations are under way with a new power source for lower rates.
In the meantime, many residents present at the meeting said they want things changed immediately to get their power bills lowered.
Delores Long asked why the city can not operate on a budget solely from tax dollars and stop making a profit off power customers.
"Everyone does not have a power company," she explained. "They operate on tax dollars."
The mayor explained profits from Osceola Power and Light subsidize the animal shelter, OPAR, the fire, street, sanitation, police departments etc.
"It provides a quality of life which I feel is important," Kennemore answered.
Long, who suggested the city drop OPAR, had earlier in the meeting said, "You talk about quality of life, yet most of these people don't even have a life because of the light bills."
Long received applause from the audience when she asked if the city was funding OPAR, why did the fees increase.
"What is going on with our city finances?" Long asked. "The only time the cost adjustment was in the negative was when you were running for mayor. During the election, you said we had emergency money. Then after the ice storm, we got a cost adjustment to cover the emergency. Where is all this money?"
Long, who works for the Mississippi County EOC office, said it broke her heart when a mother of two with an income of $675 a month came to her with a $600 light bill.
"It seems like no one cares," she said. "I've lived in this city my whole life and I've never before seen $1,200 light bills."
Love suggested to the council no one is actually reading the meters.
"I read my meter for 47 days and I came nowhere close to their figures," she said. "The city of Osceola's money is my money and I want to know where my money is. I am on a fixed income and I can no longer be robbed by the city of Osceola. In February, I had a $500 bill. Something mighty wrong is going on in here. May you have a blessed day."
Brenda Binkley, owner of Osceola Furniture, quoted the Bible when she addressed the council and said she was standing up for her customers.
"If we don't pull together," she said, "this town will keep going down. It will become a ghost town. If my customers can't make it, I can't make it. We all need to pray about this."
Moore told the audience it is true the city recently shut off electricity to some 300 customers in one week.
He said the customers were two and a half months behind and were getting deeper and deeper in debt.
"It was our fault," Moore said. "We should not have let them fall behind that far. Everyone knows the further in debt you get, the harder it is it get out."
Moore explained the city has changed its policy. Now, any customer who does not pay their bill in 15 days past the due date will be disconnected on that day.
Kennemore had earlier proposed an ordinance which would have required predetermined energy efficiency and weatherproofing standards to be met on both new construction and existing structures. He hoped this would lower utility bills.
However, failing to gain approval by the Osceola Planning Commission, the council also let the ordinance die with no action.
"We will identify houses with high kilowatt usage and work with landlords on a volunteer basis to improve housing conditions and hopefully lower bills," Kennemore said.
The city is also sponsoring a seminar titled "How to Save on Utility Bills" at 6 p.m. Monday at city hall. The guest speaker will be energy efficiency expert Doug Rye. The public is invited to attend. (A second seminar will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Blytheville Greyhound Bus Station.)
Pastor Archie Thomas ended the meeting with a prayer, but first he reminded the city council they are all up for re-election in November.
"You need to have some compassion and stop shutting their power off. Hear them now," he said, pointing to the audience, "or you will hear them later."