Write-offs force Coast Electric to get tough

Published 12:06 am Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thinking of waiting a couple of days past the due date to write the check to the Coast Electric? If you do, you’ll be writing the check in the dark.

Last month, the not-for-profit electric company started a new policy that is a get tough approach on new subscribers and those with a sketchy payment history. “It is our policy to shut off the power (the day after the due date),” explained Coast Electric spokeswoman April Lawler. “We will be out the next day to disconnect.”

Coast Electric adopted the new policy earlier this year after reviewing the huge number of charge-offs they were incurring. Noting that the company had seen a significant increase in people skipping out on their bills since the economy took a downward turn, Lawler said the driving force behind the decision was longer in the making. “One of our reasons we changed our policy is the large number of charge-offs we had last year, that cost our good paying members in the long run,” said Lawler. She added, “We have seen more charge-offs since the economy took a down turn with the frequency and the number of people increasing.”

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Continuing, she said statistics showed that the largest portion of the charge-offs were customers who had been with the company for a year or less, those who rent, and those whose credit scores are marginal. “This is not to say all new customers or renters do not pay their bills on time,” said Lawler, “But statistically, those are the ones we see.”

According to Lawler, 55% of the company’s charge-offs are from customers with the company for less than a year, while those with the company between one and two years results in 20% of the charge-offs. “Ninety percent of our customers pay on time,” she said.

Noting that the company would work out payment plans for those who have been with them for over a year, Lawler said that for the new customers, there were not any negotiations for payment. “They have to pay their bill on time,” Lawler added.

As for notifying the public, Lawler said in addition to articles and notices in their publication, “Today”, and inserts in the bills, a new statement was added to the monthly invoice in March informing customers of the importance of paying their bill on time, but she conceded the wording may have not been clear enough. “We try to inform everyone as well as possible,” said Lawler. “But we are experiencing a high number of calls, so next month we will make the statement more bold and clarified to state that if their account is delinquent, we will shut it off.”

And, she said, if someone did have to come out to the residence to collect the delinquent amount, an additional $29 would be added to the following month’s bill.

As for those on disability, social services, or limited incomes, Lawler suggest they call the power company to try and work out a payment schedule that would work with their income schedule. “We encourage people to call and make arrangements with us,” said Lawler, “but they must call before that (delinquent) date.”

According the Mississippi Public Service Commission Administrator Assistant Jay McKnight, what the power company is doing is within their rights. “It is legal,” said McKnight. “If it is, say due on the fifth, they can show on the sixth to turn off their power.”

Lawler said Coast Electric has 74,000 members between Pearl River, Hancock, and Harrison counties. She added that the company had a number of options for customers such as their Web-Alive billing, time of use rates, and auto pay.

In the Web-Alive billing, the customer is charged a set amount for each month based on a year’s calculated average bill, whereas the time of use rates offers special rates for using power during off-peak hours. “That is potentially good for retirees or people who are home during the day,” said Lawler. “For people struggling, that might be a way to save.”

Lawler pointed out that the company had also initiated another police regarding deposits. All new residential accounts will require a $250 deposit or the equivalent of two months power. Continuing, she said if the account remained in good standing, the deposit was refunded after two years.

“It will take some getting use to and some growing pains,” said Lawler. “It is the good customers we have at heart.”