With the bills they receive in September, Selma residents and businesses will see a 10-percent drop in their electricity rates. What’s unknown is whether the town can afford to be so generous.
On Tuesday, a passionately divided Selma Town Council voted 3-2 to cut the town’s electricity rates across the board starting Aug. 1. The matter was not on the meeting’s agenda; it arose as a motion from Councilman Tommy Holmes.
The idea is to pass along some of the savings the town expects to reap once the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency sells its power-plant assets to Duke Energy. Selma is one of the 32 towns that agreed to sell their shares to Duke in return for lower rates.
The deal is scheduled to close July 31, and Selma could see the price it pays for wholesale electricity plummet by as much as 15 percent on Aug. 1. To determine the best way to pass those savings on to customers, the council voted 3-2 in May to pay $20,700 for a study of its electricity rates. The study could be done as early as October or as late as January.
The plan was to cut rates once the town had the study, but Holmes said he never supported the study and wanted to cut rates now.
“I’ve had several conversations with the citizens, and they want to know when are they going to get a reduction, because they’ve been promised it,” he said. “I could have asked for the whole 15 percent.”
Councilman Eric Sellers said he appreciated the spirit of Holmes’ motion and said he would be open to considering some reduction at the August meeting. At that point, the town would know whether the deal with Duke Energy had closed, and it would know for certain how much its wholesale rate had fallen.
However, Sellers strongly opposed the across-the-board cut that passed Tuesday. Citing his experience selling utility-billing software to towns, Sellers said electricity rates are a complicated matter, and that’s why the town paid for a rate study. There are many variables in electricity billing, he said, such as differing on- and off-peak rates; residential and commercial rates; and rates that change based on usage.
Mayor Cheryl Oliver shared Sellers’ concerns and explored whether she could block Holmes’ motion by questioning the procedure he followed.
“That’s a huge decrease without any data,” she said. “To pull a number out of the air and say, ‘Reduce the rates,’ just doesn’t seem circumspect.”
Oliver asked attorney Frank Wood, who was filling in for Town Attorney Chip Hewett, if the council could legally change a utility rate without first alerting the public by listing it on the meeting’s agenda. Having not prepared for the surprise question, Wood said he could not give a definite answer. However, he said, the safest choice would be for the board to wait until August to vote.
Oliver’s inquiry infuriated Holmes and Councilman William Overby, who had seconded Holmes’ motion.
“I’m amazed you’re pulling that trump card when we’ve done it before,” Overby said.
After about 15 minutes of discussion, Holmes refused to pull his motion and demanded that the council take a vote. The decision came down to Councilwoman Jackie Lacy, who had until that point remained silent on the matter.
When the moment came, Lacy sided with Holmes and Overby in voting to approve the 10-percent rate cut. Her decision clearly stunned Sellers, who could not contain his disappointment.
“Good God,” Sellers said. “It’s so irresponsible.”
After the vote, Lacy clarified that she voted for the cut because she hopes to see rates fall by the full 15 percent. Sellers retorted that optimism is not a plan.
Also this month, the council:
▪ Annexed 15 acres at 4451 Buffalo Road, which borders town limits. In March, the council approved a special-use permit for a solar farm on the land under the condition that the owner, Roberts & Wellons Inc., seek annexation.
▪ OK’d a special-use permit for a 5-megawatt solar farm on 39 acres at 88 Yelverton Grove Road. Roberts & Wellons owns the land, and National Renewable Energy Corp. of Charlotte is the developer.
▪ OK’d a special-use permit for a 1.99-megawatt solar farm on 50 acres at 5840 Buffalo Road. Roberts & Wellons owns the land, and the developer is Red Toad 5840 Buffalo Road, which is based in Lake Mary, Fla.
▪ Scheduled a public hearing for 6 p.m. Aug. 11 on Selma Middle School’s request to install an electronic sign.
▪ Revised the rules of procedure for Town Council meetings. The major changes were moving the meeting time to 6 p.m., which the town has already started doing, and forbidding absent councilmen from taking part in meetings over the phone.
▪ Reduced the speed limit on Poole Drive to 25 mph from 35 mph.
▪ Revised the job descriptions for every position with the Town of Selma, along with a new organizational chart and salary schedule. The changes resulted from a pay study the MAPS Group completed for the town in February 2014.