Forest Hill Church, Duke Energy tussle over $216K electric bill

Forest Hill Church, Duke Energy tussle over $216K electric bill

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by BRUCE HENDERSON & JOHN MURAWSKI / Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on January 31, 2013 at 8:52 AM

Updated Thursday, Jan 31 at 8:21 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke Energy and one of Charlotte’s biggest churches, Forest Hill, say they’re close to resolving a monthslong dispute over a $216,000 electric bill.

Raleigh’s News & Observer obtained emails about the disagreement through a public records request to the N.C. Utilities Commission’s Public Staff. Because the church never filed a formal complaint, it remained out of public sight for months.

The roots of the dispute date to 2002, when Forest Hill Church asked Duke to place one of the church’s three accounts on a rate schedule that was expected to lower its electric bill. In processing the change, Duke inadvertently stopped billing that account.

When the utility finally caught the error last summer, it billed Forest Hill $216,000 for three of the nearly 10 years the account had not been charged. The money would be repaid over three years.

The church objected, pleading financial strain from the unexpected bill. Forest Hill said the church never realized it wasn’t being billed accurately and pointed out that the error was Duke’s.

Duke responded that Forest Hill should have noticed a 50 percent drop in its electric bills and notified the utility. Duke calculated the church’s cost of repaying the bill over three years at less than 1 percent of the church’s $9 million in annual contributions.

Duke spokeswoman Paige Layne said that when customers are undercharged, such as when a meter is broken, “we do attempt to go back and bill for a period of time to keep from spreading costs to other customers.” The difference in this case, she added, was the size of the bill and the prominence of the church. In an October email, James McLawhorn, director of the Public Staff’s Electric Division, wrote that “the problem was clearly caused by Duke’s own errors, and I’m not convinced that it was obvious to the customer that they were being underbilled.”

Gov. Pat McCrory has ties to both sides. Duke is his former employer. Forest Hill, located on Park Road in south Charlotte, is the home of his spiritual adviser, Senior Pastor David Chadwick, who gave the invocation when McCrory took the oath of office Jan. 5.

McCrory appears to have no involvement in the dispute. But as governor he has authority to appoint utility commissioners, to whom the large church appealed for help.

Forest Hill communications director Stacey Martin said McCrory is not a member of the church and was not asked to get involved. “We don’t see any (McCrory) correlation with this dispute at all,” she said.

An official of the Utilities Commission’s Public Staff, which advocates for consumers, said the church never invoked its connection to McCrory in asking the staff to intervene.

“As far as I know, the Public Staff was not aware of any connection until the last couple of weeks,” said McLawhorn.

McCrory’s office declined comment. In late November, a church administrator wrote Edward Finley, chairman of the Utilities Commission. Duke by then demanded more than $218,000, he wrote, or would cut off service. The administrator asked the commission to hold off Duke until the issue was resolved.

Finley’s administrative assistant twice asked the Public Staff for updates, the emails show. Duke, meanwhile, agreed to reconsider the case.

Finley’s term as chairman ends June 30, under an appointment by former Gov. Bev Perdue, although his term as a commissioner runs to mid-2019. He could not be reached Wednesday. There is one vacancy on the Utilities Commission, with two more opening June 30 for McCrory to fill with his own appointees.

The email exchanges continued into January, but the dispute appears to be ending.

Martin, the Forest Hill spokeswoman, said the church and Duke have reached a mutual resolution that they’re close to approving. She wouldn’t disclose its terms.

Duke spokeswoman Layne said the utility “is in the process of resolving it.”

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