Smithfield Herald

Selma bites rate bullet

The Selma Town Council walked back its 10 percent electric rate cut from this past summer, voting to raise the rate 5 percent. The council was split 4-1 in the vote, with Councilman Tommy Holmes as the lone dissenter.

The new rate still represents a 6.5 percent reduction from what Selma power customers were paying before the Duke Energy Progress sale in August. As one of North Carolina’s 32 municipalities in the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency, Selma took the chance to lower its electric rate after Duke bought an ownership share from the agency. After the sale, Utility Financial Solutions performed a rate study on Selma, but before those results were released, the town cut its electric rate 10 percent. The study recommended revisiting the rate.

“The consultant told us that if we hadn’t already cut the rate, she would have advised us to do nothing for now,” Mayor Cheryl Oliver said of rate consultant Dawn Lund. “That would have provided Selma coverage and kept the rates stable over the next five years. Now she’s recommending small increases over that time.”

The 10 percent cut was made with a 3-2 vote, with Oliver on the losing side. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she views it as a mistake for the town.

“We did not have the data to support it,” she said. “When we’re talking about an item that’s over half the budget, and pull a number from the air, it’s dangerous.”

Following Selma’s 5 percent hike right now, the study planned for 2 percent raises each year. Oliver said maybe those will be necessary, maybe they won’t.

“Unfortunately, utility rates can become a political football,” she said.

Councilman William Overby voted to cut the rate 10 percent and also voted to raise it 5 percent. He regrets neither.

“The 10 percent cut did not put us in the position to have to raise the rates back,” Overby said. “The electric department has been making revenue the past three years. There’s $300,000 in reserve the past three years.”

Holmes, in voting against the 5 percent hike, said he was not swayed by the study.

“I’m the one who voted to cut it 10 percent and when I make a decision I stick to it,” Holmes said.

Earlier this month, the Selma Council also made an offer of $60,000 to purchase the American Legion building on Webb Street in Selma. The council was also split over this decision, voting 3-2 to make the offer. Oliver, who voted yes, sees the property as a potential civic center, used for dances, talent shows and weddings.

“It’s a great opportunity and something that citizens have expressed as a need over the years,” Oliver said.

The building was originally a gym and a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, and while it has been used as a gym, hosted fashion shows and sometimes for storage, it has largely sat vacant, Oliver said.

Those voting for the project believe it could be secured and renovated with grant funds. Ann Williams, a consultant for the project, estimated renovations at around $250,000, Oliver said.

Holmes also voted against this project, saying citizens should have the ability to chose how the town spends its money.

“I don’t spend tax dollars unless the public knows about it,” he said. “Let’s have a public hearing. I’m not going to spend tax dollars unless the citizens have a say so.”

Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson