Thanks to an innovative program implemented by Haywood Electric Membership Corporation in 2006, almost $57,000 of overdue power bills have been forgiven for those facing COVID-19 hardships.
In March 2020, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order prohibited utility companies from disconnecting power to anyone struggling to pay their power bill due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That didn’t mean bills wouldn’t keep on accruing, but allowed customers an opportunity to set up payment plans, giving them a longer period to pay the bill.
During the initial moratorium, the electric cooperative worked with 392 of its members by making payment arrangements, said HEMC spokesperson Ken Thomas.
When the executive order ended Feb. 23, 2021, Thomas said HEMC still had 222 members who continued to struggle paying bills and make ends meet due to COVID-19.
“Collectively these members owed HEMC $56,929,” Thomas said, noting the cooperative could have legally disconnected the members. “Instead, the board decided to forgive the utility debt due to unsolicited hardship.”
The debt forgiveness action was made possible through a program called Helping Each Member Cope, (Project HEMC).
The program gives HEMC members the option of rounding up their bill each month. For instance, if a power bill is $102.69, the customer/member would instead pay $103. If the bill was $81.07, the bill would be $82.
“The beauty of rounding up is that if everyone contributes a little, the benefits add up quickly,” Thomas said.
“Some months, members could pay just a few extra cents. The norm is 50 cents per month or $6 a year. In no case would a member ever pay more than an additional 99 cents on a single monthly rounded-up bill.”
In a year’s time, a member could never pay more than $11.88, and that is a highly unlikely scenario, Thomas said — one that has never happened since the program’s inception. The rounding up program provides nearly $95,000 annually.
All rounding up proceeds are sent to a special fund in Raleigh and dispersed quarterly to social service agencies within the counties served by HEMC. The funds are earmarked to help pay energy bills for struggling HEMC electric cooperative members in its service territory.
“The co-op’s program is unique in that it is earmarked only for energy assistance, whether it is for power bills, propane, heating oil or even wood,” Thomas said. “Checks go directly to the energy provider, not the individual in need.”
Project HEMC is made possible by 72% of the cooperative’s members opting into the program, Thomas said, emphasizing the program is totally voluntary.
In the 15 years the program has been in operation, 5,517 families in seven counties have received $1.4 million or an average of $258 per family in need, said Thomas.
“What’s so remarkable is, on average, it amounts to $6 a year per contributor. That’s something anybody should be able to do,” he said. “Regardless of how you use the funds, if it is for humanitarian aid, most people don’t mind helping, especially if it averages only 50 cents a month.”
Still, the program participation has dwindled. When it was first started, 87% of the members participated, but the number is now 72%.
“If you are one of the 28% of HEMC members served by the electric co-op not participating in Project HEMC to help your struggling neighbors, but would like to, give us a call,” Thomas said. “For the 15,840 co-op members already participating, thank you and God bless you for your generosity and willingness to help your fellow man.”
To contact HEMC, visit https://haywoodemc.com/project-hemc, or call 452-2281.