Clay County Electric Customers Could Count on Higher Utility Bills

CLAY COUNTY, AR (KAIT) - Officials with Clay County Electric Cooperative said Friday customers could have higher utility bills in the future, but it's not yet known if they will for certain. The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas said companies lost an estimated $250 million from January's ice storm. Initial estimates for Clay County Electric are $40 million.

Nick Manatt with Clay County Electric said nearly every customer was without power in early February and poles were knocked down along each service line.

"From a damage standpoint, in '02, which we thought was a very bad storm and it was at that time, we had about 1,175 poles that were broken. Right now we know that we've had 10,000 poles. We've replaced 9,000 and our estimates are up to 15,000," said Manatt.

Manatt said anywhere between 4 and 5 inches of ice accumulated on power lines and poles. Poles are designed to withstand half an inch of ice.

"What we've got is, we've got 2,700 miles of line, and it's primarily in Randolph and Clay counties, a little bit of Greene, and all that 2.700 miles of line had some kind of damage, whether it be a line broken, or 2-3 poles, or every pole," said Manatt. "We estimated about 1/3 of our system, total plant, which with the pole counts and the wires and everything else involved, 1/3 of our plant was pretty well taken off."

According to federal guidelines, FEMA will take care of 75% of the cost. The state of Arkansas will then pay 12.5% of the cost and electric companies will incur the remaining 12.5%.

"We had FEMA declare a disaster as well, 75%, of course 75% of 1,000 poles is a lot different than 75% of 15,000 poles," said Manatt.

Compared to 2002, which had its own set of challenges, electric companies are reeling from tens of millions of dollars in damages.

"We're just getting the estimates in place and the ball rolling as far as financing. We have our U.S. loan funds, which in turn the interest will come back. Possibly raise the rates a little bit but the long term financing, we'll look at the benefits of having 1/3 of our system brand new and better," said Manatt.

Manatt said most of the work on Phases 2 and 3 will be complete within 60 days. That's significant considering the scope of the devastation.

In 2002, prices on utility bills were raised.

"I don't believe we had to raise due to the storm. We had some other costs, as everybody knows, the fuel costs have gone up and ordinarily our rates have remained pretty stable," said Manatt. "The electric industry as a whole has seen the cost from the coal, the natural gas that have fluctuated as the market has shown, but our costs as a whole have remained pretty stable."

"I can't say enough to praise all the citizens of northeast Arkansas. The way they've stood up and battled this storm and getting to this point this quickly. Words can't express what all has been accomplished," said Manatt.