ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — In recent weeks, customers of Erwin Utilities have reached out to News Channel 11 regarding higher-than-usual billing for their electric service.

Customers said they first noticed the increase back in November, but it has only gotten worse, with many people reaching out saying the bill for January was the highest they have ever received.

While a bump in the cost of utilities in the colder, winter months is normal, these customers claimed the costs on their current bills are far from the usual.

“Especially around this time of the year, I can understand it going up maybe $50 or $60 if that, but not jumping from $100 to $530,” said Erwin Utilities customer Brian Foster.

Foster lives in a trailer with his dog. He said he never really uses the stove, has about three lights in the entire home and his fridge is a college-style mini-fridge. Through the colder nights, he used a small space heater to keep him warm, but taking into account all of the items in his home that consistently use power and the size of his dwelling, he said the $530 bill he received last month is unreal.

He said this last bill was higher than the rent he pays. Foster said he has never seen anyone from the company come out and read his meter, and for that reason, he believes they are estimating bills.

“Somebody pulls in that driveway right there, my dog lets me know,” said Foster. “I’m there 90% of the time, and I don’t ever see anyone coming to read my meter. These numbers don’t make sense. It’s just not true billing.”

He’s not the only one with this issue. His neighbor, Donald Marcum, has lived at his current residence in Erwin for eight months now. He said his first bill was around $83 and after that, it normally ran about $150. However, the past few months have proven to be a rollercoaster when it comes to billing.

“This one here was for February; it was $585, and that’s my highest one,” said Marcum. “Then, we back up to January — $466 it increased — then we go back to December, $332. Then we go back to November where it was $331.”

Marcum is on a fixed income and said that these consistent high bills have him seriously considering leaving Erwin altogether.

“There’s 100 and some odd people in this town who get higher bills every month,” said Marcum. “It increases every month. There are people who have gas heaters, gas stoves, and they’re getting those high electric bills. It just makes no sense.”

Erwin Utilities CEO and President Lee Brown sat down with News Channel 11 regarding the recent high bills. He said he and his team are aware of the customer complaints, but he assures those numbers are correct and customers have been billed properly. He also said Erwin Utilities never estimates bills but instead uses a new remote reading system that was installed and initiated within the past 12 months.

“There’s just no way for an energy provider to explain to a customer where that energy went in their home unless we’re actually there,” Brown said. “While some people feel like there is something underhanded going on, I can assure you, that’s not the case. We will continue to provide service and try to help each and every customer with their problems.”

However, Marcum said nothing has changed in regard to their usage. He said he and his wife are good about turning off lights when not in use and when the heat is on, it doesn’t usually peak past 65 degrees. Marcum wonders how his bill could go up if his habits haven’t changed.

When the question was posed to Brown, he said high costs this time of year are due mainly in part to heating the home and poor insulation, leading to lack of efficiency.

“They may not change that thermostat but yet, their heating system —whether it’s electric or whatever the fuel source might be — is working harder than it’s ever worked when the temperatures dip down in the low degrees, teens and single digits,” said Brown.

Marcum said he just wants answers. He said he’s called multiple times questioning his bill to no avail.

“Most of the time when you get a hold of someone, they say there’s nothing we can do,” said Marcum. “Then you call them back, and they just don’t answer the phone.”

That is a common sentiment among residents News Channel 11 spoke with. Resident Tammy Campbell said she was able to get someone on the phone, but they didn’t answer her questions regarding the bill amount.

“Basically, I was told to just deal with it,” she said. “He asked me, ‘Do you want me to cut it off? I can do that.'”

Campbell is also facing this issue, working two jobs and struggling to pay what she says are “inaccurate and unreasonably high” bills.

“Something’s not right,” said Campbell. “It’s just too much, and too many people are having issues. $100 to almost $400 in basically the span of almost three months — that’s ridiculous. It’s either pay the lights or buy groceries. Pay the lights or get gas to go to and from work,” she said.

Paul Ollis is also on a fixed income and has been following his bill closely. He said even in December when the weather was unseasonably warm, he was receiving higher than usual bills.

“When I’m walking around in shorts in December because the temperatures are so warm, I know I don’t have the heat on,” Ollis said. “We haven’t had the heat on nearly as much as we did last year.”

Being on a fixed income and having to pay these bills or risk losing their power privileges altogether is his biggest dilemma right now.

“There are so many people who are on fixed incomes, and it makes it hard to pay the bills,” he said. “You have to pay for it because if you don’t have electricity, you can’t really survive. We have maybe $40-$50 a month left after bills. It’s hard to run a household on that much money per month.”

But how does billing for utilities work? Scott Brooks, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Valley Authority, said their company is the largest public power provider in the nation.

TVA is an entity of the federal government but does not receive any federal tax money; instead, they are funded through power rates. They provide power to 153 local companies, which then serve households and businesses.

“We produce the power with a variety of plants, including natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar and wind, and we generate that electricity, then sell it to those local power companies who then send it to the homes and businesses they serve,” said Brooks.

They charge wholesale for power at a rate of about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, then local companies charge a delivery fee and a slightly higher amount per kilowatt-hour to make a profit and account for the cost of running daily operations.

In the case of Erwin Utilities, the delivery fee per customer is set at $22.10 with an additional charge of 9.250 cents per kilowatt-hour. Brown said it’s a rate that hasn’t been increased by Erwin Utilities in years.

Throughout the interview, Brown stood by his firm belief that heating was the main factor in these high bills. He also mentioned that some of these bills contain services additional to electricity such as sewage, water, wastewater, and internet charges that can also add up in regard to a final bill. However, he always circled back to usage.

Usage is something Brooks also touched on in regards to how billing is calculated.

“The number one factor for customer bills all across the region is usage,” said Brooks. “If the amount per kilowatt-hour hasn’t gone up much, then there might be something that is influencing usage. That’s why we always encourage folks to do simple things to make sure their homes are as energy efficient as they can be because if you’re in an older home or sometimes a mobile home, it’s not necessarily efficient. That heating and cooling are going right out under your doors.”

With the warmer months approaching, Erwin Utilities officials say bills should see a decrease as people begin to depend less on their heaters. However, while normalcy could be around the corner, these customers who have already received bills pricier than they can afford fear for the next billing cycle.

While it’s not the answer some customers are looking for, there is outside help that can assist with paying these bills. The low-income energy assistance program (LIHEAP) based in Kingsport serves over 9,000 households each year, offering benefits to pay utility bills anywhere from $600-1,000.

Samantha Meade, the Community Services Manager for LIHEAP, said the program greatly impacts the lives of the people they serve.

“They don’t have the money to take away from their rent or their food budget to pay the increased cost of their energy bill,” Meade said. “So, this assistance steps in and is able to help pay that part of their energy bill.”

Brown encourages those who believe they have an improper bill to call their office but at the same time, also conduct a check of the home to ensure it’s as energy-efficient as possible.

While that is the best answer Erwin Utilities is providing in terms of this issue, customers say they won’t stop fighting until they get help for the bills.

The Tennessee Valley Authority does offer a complaint resolution process for those who believe they have an issue with their account or service. To file a complaint, click here.