CAIRO — Deena and Harry Williams' 2,400-square-foot craftsman home sits in what they describe as their own corner of Cairo. Nestled quietly in the 2000 block of Elm Street, it has been their family home for more than three decades.
With an attention to detail, the couple have worked to maintain as much of the original charm as they could while updating the house. They saved as much of the original oak hardwood as was possible. The beautiful built-in cabinets in their formal sitting room are illuminated with their collection of books next the wood-burning fireplace. Tracing the steps leading upstairs is the original newel post.
The couple has also added vinyl siding, $12,000 in new windows, installed a new, painted metal roof, as well as put in extra insulation in their attic. This was all done to bring the house up to do date — but mostly it was done to try and bring down their utility bill from Cairo Public Utility Co.
Harry Williams said this list of updates was done at the behest of Larry Klein, general manager for CPU and a personal friend of Williams. Williams said Klein made the recommendations after Williams went to his friend trying to find a way to bring down his bills, which average around $400 per month.
The updates did little to nothing. Harry said they brought his bill down an average of less than $100 dollars a month. When he related this to Klein, he was told the billing period must have been longer by a few days on the particular month in question. Williams recalled Klein telling him that a few extra days in the summer of running the air conditioning, which Williams admitted was many years old, could really drive up the bill.
This may be so, but Harry and Deena Williams still felt like something wasn’t right. Looking at their bills, which can be nearly 3,000 kWh some months, Harry said he didn’t feel like the usage was too far off, though he admits he doesn’t hawk over his meter to make sure. The only thing he could figure is maybe the fees that get tacked on their bill are many.
“I don’t even have to live here and it’ll be $70,” Harry Williams estimated. He said things like sewer fees, delivery charges and the like may be part of what keeps his bills well above what his friends who live outside Cairo say are normal.
Klein and Klett said that part of the issue with Cairo Public Utility Co. is that they are managing a system that was originally built for 20,000 people, and today Cairo is home to only about 2,500. They also say the rates they are paying their wholesale provider, the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, are excessive. A PowerPoint presentation put together on CPUC's behalf blamed those excessive wholesale rates on Cairo's struggles to draw new business, including a grocery store and inland port.
Wes Chumbler, whose family has owned both Spirit House Liquor stores in Cairo in excess of 40 years, said utility costs are not the biggest hurdle to doing business in Cairo, "but it is a hurdle."
That's especially true for a new business, he said. Chumbler said the managers and workers at CPUC are all nice people who are willing to help, but he said he'd love to be able to redirect at least some of the money he's paying for utilities back into his business.
Last year, Chumbler said he installed solar panels on one of his buildings and that resulted in some savings. But then they stopped working and Chumbler said he couldn't afford to have the solar system serviced. His most recent bill, due Aug. 3 to CPUC, was for $1,460 of which $1,320 was electric charges.
Cairo Unit School District 1 paid about $172,492 in sewer, gas, and electric in the most recent fiscal year that ended June 30. "They (utilities) are higher than other places but you just have to make adjustments and make it work," superintendent Andrea Evers said.
Just a few blocks away from Harry and Deena Williams, Gerald Watkins Junior, a laid off papermill worker who is going to school for HVAC installation, lives with his wife and two kids in their antique 1,150-square-foot home. Last August, the two were shocked when they opened their utility bill to see that it totaled $528, $428 of which was for electric charges on 3,176 kilowatt hours.
Watkins admitted he didn’t understand the high bill. He said they have new appliances — their washer and dryer are both energy star certified to save on utilities. He said in the colder months they even put plastic on their back windows to keep the heat in. In the summer they keep their home at 76 degrees on average.
The family was so bewildered as to what the problem was they invited Glenn Klett, assistant general manager at CPU, to their home to look for problems. Watkins remembers the only thing Klett could find was a dirty air conditioning filter and said they should shut their front door more often. He said this still didn’t seem like it should account for an average bill of $300 or more.
Watkins is a native of Cairo and, aside from a few years of college and work, he has lived here his entire life. His parents, though, they are a different story. Watkins said they moved a few years back when they saw an electric bill of $700.
They got out and settled in nearby Mound City.
When asked to comment on the repeated complaints of high bills of one of its founding members, Mike Genin, a vice president of IMEA, said the IMEA typically does not keep up with local rates and matters of local governance.
“We don’t have our ear to the ground on any complaints down there in Cairo,” he said.
In defense of what have been suggested to be high rates in Cairo, Genin said the electric rate is not the sole deciding factor. He said CPU’s rates are not entirely out of line with other municipalities he has visited throughout the state. Indeed they are not. After checking with each municipality on the IMEA member roster, The Southern found that many were well above the average 9.6-cent Ameren rate that factors in power and delivery charges.
Genin said customer usage has to be the real baseline when talking about high bills.
“People pay bills, they don’t pay rates,” he said, adding that a household’s individual usage is really the determining factor over the actual rates themselves.
Residential CPUC customers are charged 12.5 cents per kWh while the customer charge is $10. The electric rate is staggering to some outsiders. This is about 30 percent higher than the Ameren CIPS rate of 9.6 cents per kWh just miles to the north.
The Ameren rate is calculated after combining the electric rate of 6.5 cents per kWh, which can vary depending on where one lives, with the delivery charge.
Thirty percent higher may not seem like a lot when looking at average usage around 1,200 kilowatt hours per month. For an Ameren customer, this comes to a $132.20 bill, including a $17 customer charge before taxes. For a CPUC customer, the same usage would be $160 after a $10 customer charge before taxes. That is a difference of $27.50.
However, when comparing usage rates of 3,000 kWh or more, which is common in Cairo, the gap grows by a steep margin. For an Ameren customer, this usage would result in a $305 bill, plus a $17 customer charge.
For a Cairo resident, this would be $392 after a $10 before taxes. The difference then is $87. For some, this can be the difference between paying the bill or not, and if the customer is not able to pay, such high bills can snowball fast.
When presented with some customers’ bills that had been shared with The Southern, which topped out some months above 3,000 kWh, Genin said the dollar figure was not what surprised him about the bills. He said the usage was what seemed high, however, he said it was believable. He gave the same answer Klein and Klett gave to these high bills — inefficient homes.
“In Cairo you’ve got a lot of housing where there’s no insulation, the air conditioners are old, the refrigerators are old, so a house there might use a lot more energy than a similar house in Carbondale or Champaign,” Genin said.
— Reporter Molly Parker contributed to this report.
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