by David Anderson
#Kinston Free Press
Legislators will take a closer look at electric rates in Eastern North Carolina Tuesday in an effort to find solutions for costs that some say are crippling many residents and business owners.
The Joint Municipal Power Agency Relief committee will meet Tuesday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh. The committee is co-chaired by Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican who represents Wilson and Nash counties, and Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash.
“My sincere desire is, that they take this issue seriously and it appears that they have . . . our request to the General Assembly subcommittee is simply to try to fully vet every single opportunity there could be, whether that is restructuring debt to selling assets,” Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy said.
Murphy, along with City Manager Tony Sears and Councilman Sammy C. Aiken, is planning to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
“I’m going there as an observer and supporter of the city of Kinston,” Aiken said.
Legislators are reviewing the costs, challenges and structure of the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency, which sells electricity to 32 member cities, including Kinston, La Grange and Hookerton.
Electric rates are higher in the member city areas because of debt the group took on to partially build and own nuclear and coal-fired plants. Estimates show that close to 37 percent of customer bills go directly to the NCEMPA debt.
“I firmly believe that the only real solution left is the General Assembly’s involvement, because it’s so difficult to get rid of debt,” Murphy said. “Roughly 40 percent of our costs are related to debt, so unless a magician is able to figure that out, there’s not a clear alternative.”
That debt is not scheduled to be paid off until 2026, and officials with ElectriCities and NCEMPA have stated there are little to no options for restructuring or forgiving the debt.
A large portion of it was taken on to build the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant in the late 1970s.
“People have got to be more involved, not necessarily occupy the Shearon Harris nuclear plant but something’s got to be done; nothing is non-negotiable,” Aiken said.
The legislative committee meeting, which includes five members of the House and five members of the Senate, will receive several reports during the meeting.
Presentations are planned by ElectriCities CEO Graham Edwards, Wake Forest City Manager Mark Williams, Ron Elks, general manager of Greenville Utilities, and Thomas Stith, program director for economic development for the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Stith will provide an expert review of how economic development is affected in the east by the higher electric rates.
The committee is trying to gather information and will do so during a third meeting this year before the development of a report, due in April, that could lead to legislation.
Newton, the committee’s co-chair, said it is too early to know whether a solution can be found but the group was formed in an effort to find ways to reduce the cost of electricity by refinancing or restructuring NCEMPA’s debt.
Follow Tuesday’s committee meeting live on Twitter, on Staff Writer David Anderson’s Twitter feed, @DavidFreePress.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 252-265-7818. Free Press Staff Writer David Anderson contributed to this report.