SALAMANCA - Cold weather has started to give way a bit in the region, but energy bills in the one Cattaraugus County city will be a reminder of the winter for a long time.
Residents are expressing their ire over the recently received energy bill in the city of Salamanca. The area used to enjoy some of the lowest rates per kilowatt in the region, billing residents on average $40 to $50 a month. Many of those same residents are seeing bills approaching $1,000, as Mother Nature's icy grip takes its toll on the area.
"Someone has to do something about it," said Mindy John, a Lexington Avenue resident. "I'm tired of paying $600 to $900 electric bills when my actual usage is $200."
Keith King, city Board of Public Utilities manager, said January's extreme-low temperatures, combined with the highest power rates the city has ever seen, have driven electric bills as high as three-fold previous prices, in some cases. King said the city is not alone in this matter, however.
"It's all municipal electric systems in Western New York," he said. "Everybody is dealing with the high prices. January was extremely cold and we, as a city, purchased more power than ever before at prices the highest they have ever been."
Before January, the highest amount paid for power in one month was $700,000. January's weather, coupled with those increased power rates, drove the all-time high for power purchase to about $1.2 million, King said.
"My house is large, but my electric bill is more than my mortgage."
The city of Salamanca receives power from two sources. Primarily, power comes from the hydroelectric facility operated by the New York Power Authority, at Niagara Falls. The problem with that source is that it is limited, according to King. "Only so much water goes over the falls," he said.
The other source, once the cheap rates associated with hydropower have been exhausted, is to go to the open market to buy power. That is where rates go up, King said. Regardless of the source of the power, there is still a fee that must be paid to keep the lights on in the city. King said that rate, the Purchase Power Adjustment , is spread across all of the electric users in the city's municipal coverage area.
"The last few years have been horrible," John said. "I've had monthly electric bills ranging from $200 to $900 a month now, with the PPA being more than my usage. Last month my bill was $672 - that being mostly PPA. This month my usage was $218, and the PPA is over $500. My bill is over $800, and we have turned the heat off in four rooms and keep the temperature pretty low. My house is large, but my electric bill is more than my mortgage."
The adjustment is the total price that is paid by the Board of Public Utilities, divided among all of the users throughout the district, according to King. The rate is not new. It has been in place in the city of Salamanca since 1979. Even users like the Seneca Allegany Casino pay the rate.
"That's how we determine how much we charge," King said. "There is a base rate of 2.49 cents per kilowatt hour that we use to pay employees, buy wire, new poles, do what we need to do to keep the operations going. The amount we charge for PPA is what pays for the electricity."
King said a base rate per kilowatt hour is also charged. That rate, contrary to the belief of some in the city, is different between the residential bill and that paid by the Seneca Allegany Casino. Residents of the city pay a base usage rate of 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas the casino pays 13 cents per kilowatt hour, according to King.
With some residents that are used to electric bills being only a couple hundred dollars receiving bills between $600 and $700, even some into the $900 range, demands for an investigation have started, to include an online petition, asking Mayor Carmen Vecchiarella and the City Council to look into the rate increase.
"We have nothing to do with the amount in PPA that is being charged," Vecchiarella said. "Keith King has no authority over them. This petition is a good thing, but instead of demanding that we look into this, I ask that these people contact state Sen. Cathy Young, or Sen. (Charles) Schumer to get more of an allotment for Salamanca. We do not control these things."
Vecchiarella said he and King were well aware that the bills would go up considerably, more than doubling for some residents. Though the mayor and council control a lot of things, the weather is not one of them, he said, and the low temperatures are the result of one of the coldest winters on record.
"If I could, I would slice everybody's bill and make it $100," Vecchiarella said. "We cannot designate a price at this level."
The bill that residents received March 1 is just the first in the cold snap that has gripped the Northeast this year. Vecchiarella said the bill received is for the month of January. The bill that will hit mailboxes April 1 will be for February, and the one in May for March.
"This is just the beginning of the high bills," Vecchiarella said. "With this being the coldest winter on record, we expected the higher energy bills. We do not like these rates any more than anyone else, but there is really nothing that can be done about them."