City won't waive $7K in jail utility charges


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Elizabeth City officials heard from an unhappy utility customer Monday night: Albemarle District Jail.

Jail Administrator Bob Jones and the jail’s attorney, Herbert Mullen, asked City Council to have the city waive almost $7,000 in demand charges added to the jail’s utility bill last September.

Council declined the jail officials’ request, voting after a closed session to not waive the demand charges. Council did agree to continue to waive late fees assessed the jail for the unpaid demand charges, and agree not to pass on the city’s costs of bringing in a temporary generator once the jail’s generator failed. But council refused to negotiate new terms of service with the jail.

Prior to the council’s decision Monday, Jones noted the Albemarle Jail Commission will have to respond to the city’s position on the demand charges when it meets Thursday.

City staff, Jones and Mullen recounted Monday how the jail came to object to its utility bill.

The jail, like other large utility customers, uses a generator for “peak shaving,” which lowers the amount of electricity it uses from the city during times of peak demand, Olson explained. That in turn lowers extra charges for placing more strain on the electrical system.

The city provided the jail a generator when the jail moved from Hughes Boulevard to Pasquotank Commerce Park in 2010. The city purchased the generator for about $212,000 and assumed maintenance responsibilities for it, Olson said.

The generator started having problems on Sept. 20, when it failed to start and a technician had to reset its computer, city electrical worker Ricky Albertson told council Monday. A similar problem happened eight days later, but neither time an error message popped up, he said.

Then the generator wouldn’t start at all on Sept. 29. The jail’s demand charges started mounting because of the city’s equipment failure, Mullen argued.

“Albemarle District Jail got a bill for the city’s generator not operating; it’s that simple,” Mullen said.

Even more importantly, the generator’s failure left the jail without backup power for several hours. The city had to bring in a temporary generator at a cost of almost $11,000 because the generator couldn’t be immediately fixed, Olson said.

While the jail never lost power, Jones told the council the jail is legally required to have backup power at all times. Any risk of the jail losing power is unacceptable, he said.

“I don’t have two hours inside of that jail to wait for somebody to hopefully get the power back on,” Jones said. “I can’t take that chance, and the law mandates that I have to have some sort of emergency power.”

Jones also clarified later that, while the jail does have electronic locks, inmates’ cells would have remained locked even without power.

Jones asked for two things: that council waive the demand charges, and that the city negotiate a new agreement for utility service for the jail.

Olson, however, argued Monday that city staff had “gone well above” their normal level of customer service in fixing the jail’s problem. He noted the jail accumulated about $1,700 in late fees after not paying the demand charges. The city waived those fees, absorbed about $11,000 in costs to provide the temporary generator, and even offered to waive half of the demand charges. The jail commission didn’t accept that offer, however, offering instead to pay 20 percent of the charges.

Olson said the city had no obligation to guarantee the jail uninterrupted power. He explained the jail is on the city’s “GS3” rate, and that rate does not promise a customer will never have a power outage.

“If you want 24/7 power services from an electrical company, that requires you to have redundancy backup,” Olson said, alluding to having an additional backup generator. That generator’s costs, including maintenance, have to be factored into a customer’s rates, he added.

Though voting with other councilors not to waive the demand charges, Councilor Johnnie Walton suggested city staff should have fixed the generator when it first started malfunctioning. He compared the situation to ignoring car problems until the car breaks down.