A new Wake Forest pilot program will allow electrical customers to pre-pay for their power, helping the town prevent defaults and allowing customers to monitor power use while avoiding late fees and security deposits.
Town staff compare the voluntary program to filling your gas tank to run your car.
“Utilities are one of the only places left where you can consume before you pay,” said Drew Brown, Wake Forest’s customer service supervisor who oversees billing.
The Wake Forest Board of Commissioners reviewed the program at their work session last week and told staff to proceed. No start date has been set for the program – right now, staff is gauging customer interest.
Customers who sign up for pre-paid meter service will pay for their electricity throughout the month instead of on an all-or-nothing monthly deadline. There are no late fees, no disconnect or reconnect charges and no deposit. When a customer’s account runs low, they will be alerted through phone, email or text messages. When the account hits empty, it’s automatic lights out.
Wake Forest won’t be the first in the area to try it. In Johnston County, the Selma Town Council in February chose to double the town’s number of pre-paid meters to 100 because of their popularity. Any customer can sign up, but they’re mandatory for those whose power has been cut off repeatedly for failing to pay too many times.
“Our debt is definitely down,” said Kim Pickett, who oversees Selma’s pre-paid meter program. “It’s hard to run up a balance over $10 or $15.”
Wake Forest saw about 100 customers default on electrical payments in 2011, Brown said. That left about $32,500 owed to the town, with the bulk of that amount from a large commercial account that defaulted due to bankruptcy. On average, about 48 customers default per year at a roughly $4,000 cost to the town.
Some of that is collected through the N.C. Debt Set-Off Program, Brown said, while some trickles in slowly as residents come into some cash.
“It’s hard to pay a big bill when it comes in all at once,” Mayor Vivian Jones said. “Being able to pay a little bit all along will be great for a lot of people.”
The program is for more than just the unreliable, Brown said. Penny-pinchers and residents committed to or curious about green living can monitor the impact of, say, an extra load of laundry or a window left open with the air conditioning on.
The plan will cost the town no more than $9,000 to run, staff told board members at their work session Tuesday. If enough residents sign up for the trial run, it could become a permanent option for electrical utility customers in Wake Forest.
Commissioner Anne Hines said she would support the program if residents showed enough interest, calling it an opportunity to try something new. Commissioner Zach Donahue agreed.
“Nobody would be any worse off, and some people would be better off, residents and the town both,” Donahue said.