GRAY — A petition on the website change.org calling for an investigation into a local utility company has over 800 signatures, but the Public Services Commission says there is not enough substantial evidence to warrant an investigation.
Dustin Shoopman and his wife have been customers of Cumberland Valley Electric for nearly two years. He says he started the petition after having his electric bill almost double in a year’s span with little change in his day-to-day routine. The entrepreneur, and self-described businessman, says he is always checking his family’s bills, crunching numbers, and monitoring their finances and the increase in their bill didn’t make sense.
“There is an unnerving problem with Cumberland Valley Electric/RECC,” Shoopman wrote in the petition. “Countless Kentucky residents of Knox and surrounding counties have felt the sting of soaring usage rates, some even doubling, although there is no change in day to day routines. This Petition is hereby established to give a voice to the people. Furthermore, let this petition serve as just cause for an investigation and full audit to be carried out on Cumberland Valley Electric/RECC of Knox County by the Kentucky Public Services Commission.”
Shoopman says the petition he created had over 500 signatures within the first 24 hours of it being posted online. His goal is to get at least 1,000 signatures on the petition. Once he does, he plans on presenting the petition to the Public Services Commission (PSC).
“This petition makes some sort of general allegation regarding Cumberland Valley’s rates, and the fact of the matter is, Cumberland Valley has not any rate increases since 2017, for almost three years,” said Andrew Melnykovych with the PSC.
“Our company is over 75 years old and we’ve only had four rate increases in 75 years,” said Rich Prewitt of Cumberland Valley Electric. “Our ‘soaring usage rates’ kind of puzzles me, because Cumberland Valley Electric has some of, if not the lowest, but it has some of the lowest electric rates east of the Mississippi River. It’s not like we’re up there at the top of the pack, we’re in the bottom of the pack as far as rates.”
Shoopman and his wife work away from home, staying gone on some occasions for multiple days at a time. Shoopman says before leaving for any extended period of time, he and his wife will flip all of the breakers to their home off. They have even gone as far as to not run heat or air at all, completely turning off their furnace.
Shoopman says he tried to talk with Cumberland Valley Electric about his billing, but he wasn't able to get the answers he was looking for.
Prewitt did offer some possible explanations to The Times-Tribune for why someone could see such a drastic increase in their electricity bill. He said sometimes customers will have an issue with a switch on their heat pumps that changes the air it blows from cold to hot. Sometimes that switch will get stuck causing both cold, and hot air to blow, and thus cause you to use twice as much electricity as you previously were.
Another example Prewitt shared was customers using strip heat without noticing. Strip heat is the heat being blown by your unit when you first turn your thermostat up a few degrees to warm your house up. Prewitt said running strip heat is sometimes three times as costly as running regular heat.
“The only way that you can really maintain — unless you get a smart thermostat that you can operate from your phone — but as far as the thermostat in the house, the best way to manage your account and to manage your money is to set it on the lowest that you can live with,” he said. “Whether that be 67 [degrees], 68, or 69 and leave it. Don’t turn it up, don’t turn it down. Anytime that you turn the thermostat more than two degrees, strip heat runs.”
Prewitt credits Cumberland Valley Electric’s CEO Ted Hampton as the reason why the company is dedicated to caring for its customers. In fact, Cumberland Valley doesn’t even call the people who pay for using its electric customers, they refer to them as members.
“He’s like John Wayne,” said Prewitt on Hampton. “There’s no gray area, everything’s just black and white. You always do what’s best for the member. That’s how we work everyday.”
One of the most common comments on the petition is the notion that Cumberland Valley raises its rates once KCEOC Community Action Partnership starts its LIHEAP program. The LIHEAP program helps those in need pay their heating and electric bills during the cooler months, when bills are usually their highest.
According to the PSC, Cumberland Valley isn’t able to change its rates on such a short notice. In order to do so, the company would have to go through a rate change process with the PSC, and only the PSC could approve or deny the change in rates. The process of raising rates can be a lengthy one, possibly taking up 10 months, says Melnykovych.
Shoopman and those who signed the petition want an investigation, however, Melnykovych says he doesn’t believe Shoopman’s petition would be enough to warrant an investigation into Cumberland Valley, even if it were to reach the 1,000 signature goal.
“If we develop information that determines that at investigation is necessary the PSC will investigate on its own initiative," Melnykovych said. "If we see that there is a pattern of complaints about a utility that deal with some substantive issue that the PSC can address, and there’s a pattern of complaints or somebody files a complaint with us, then we can use that as a basis for an investigation.”
“The contents of this petition say ‘absurd usage rate hikes,’ well there haven’t been any rate hikes, so I’m not sure what the petition is referencing,” Melnykovych stated.
“Just because people are upset that their utility bills are high, that’s not in it of itself going to trigger an investigation, because the principal factor driving the size of utility bills is how much utility service consumes,” he added.
Unlike other electric and utility companies in the area, Cumberland Valley Electric is cooperative meaning it is membered owned.
“We don’t have stockholders, we don’t have CEOs making a couple million dollars a year, or anything like that,” said Prewitt. “[Shoopman] owns us, he’s more than welcome to come down here and tell us what we’re doing wrong, because he’s actually an owner member.”