Power costs concern business owners

By Jason Evans Staff Reporter


EASLEY — Small business owners spoke before Easley Combined Utilities commissioners Monday night, expressing concerns about rising costs and a lack of communication from the utility.

Vicki Ciplickas, owner of The Starving Artist Cafe, located in downtown Easley, said she was speaking not only for herself, but also on behalf of members of the Easley Downtown Business Association.

She said her utility bills could be dramatically lower if her business was a Duke Energy customer.

“The difference, if you use their rate sheets, is a little over $500 a month,” Ciplickas said. “I know you guys are a $51 million company and $500 a month doesn’t seem like a lot to you. To a small business, that’s the difference between staying open and closing.”

In a letter to the EDBA, ECU officials explained that their rates are structured differently than Duke’s and to compare the two was not a fair comparison.

“One of the things we’re trying to understand here is what’s the benefit to this structure?” Ciplickas said. “I’m not saying we want you to go away. But we have to have some kind of value. And our bills, we can’t afford them.

“How is the rate structure actually determined and what drives yearly price increases? What recourse do you have for your customers?”

Using information from ECU annual reports from the last 10 years, Ciplickas said the utility’s revenue grew year over year while customer growth remained relatively flat.

She and other business owners would like to be informed sooner of planned increases, so they can fold those expected costs into their annual budgets, she said.

“If you’ve gone up 23 percent over the last 10 years, is that what we’re looking at for the next 10 years?” Ciplickas asked. “Because if it is, there’s a lot of people I know that are going to have to make different decisions.”

Ciplickas said ECU’s increases have outpaced inflation.

She said she can’t pass those increases onto her customers

“In Easley, South Carolina, I promise you, there is not a market for a $15 chicken salad sandwich,” Ciplickas said.

Business owners would also like ECU to refund security deposits after a sustained period of on-time payments.

“Working capital for a business like mine, $3,000 is a lot of money,” Ciplickas said.

“We need your help,” Ciplickas told commissioners. “Main Streets all over the country, not just Easley’s, have taken a beating. Our Main Street in particular has really gone through a hard time. That’s the economy and a lot of things.”

Residents don’t have as many reasons to come downtown as they did in generations past, she said.

“We need an attraction,” Ciplickas said.

She said business owners would like to see better communication and education from Easley Combined Utilities.

“Help us understand,” Ciplickas said. “We want you to discuss how you can help us lower our overhead costs. Not because we’re greedy. We want you to be part of this downtown coming back and coming alive. We can’t do it without you.”

She said better communication would help ECU dispel rumors in the community.

“The rumors are you guys make billions of dollars and it all goes in your pockets,” Ciplickas said. “I think that’s not who you want to be right now. You need a makeover. I want you to be a part of the community.”

Don Williams, owner of Quick Copy/Printer Center and Bowers School Supply, had questions concerning a building he is attempting to renovate near City Hall.

At some point before he bought the building, the power lines were disconnected and taken down, he said, and the building was deteriorating for some time before he purchased it.

The estimated cost to have the power reconnected was $1,600, Williams said.

“That’s a huge bill for us,” Williams said.

The proposed business was one of the winners of Easley’s Main Street Challenge, he said.

“That bill really threw the whole thing into left field,” Williams said.

He said the bill is overestimating the time it will take to hook up the lines.

“It really should be about half of that,” Williams said. “We’re asking to be treated fairly and economically on this thing, because it is a huge problem.”

He said other Main Street Challenge winners could be facing the same issues when it comes to getting power to their buildings.

“We need to have a more equitable situation, payment plans or something to make the costs financially palatable,” Williams said.

Jerry Vickery, the former owner and publisher of The Easley Progress, said he’s had a wonderful partnership with Easley Combined Utilities over the years.

“I could not ask for any better relationship with Combined Utilities,” Vickery said.

But ECU should be encouraging business owners like Williams, who are fighting blight and restoring properties that have fallen into disrepair, he said.

“There should be no hookup fee for Mr. Williams at all,” Vickery said. “Folks, we’ve got a building there — right in the front door of City Hall, right across from the farmers market, right across from the law enforcement center — that was a drug haven. Set on fire twice. This man has taken on that building and is trying to bring it up to date.”

The utility should not be putting “roadblocks” in the way of business, Vickery said.

“Let’s get uptown where it needs to be,” Vickey said. “We’ve got to make that little area as safe and as beautiful as it can possibly be. If (Williams) walks away from it, it’s going to be a tragic mess.”

Easley small business owner David Cox said he was sure ECU could justify its costs but had suggestion for the commission.

“I think sometimes small businesses struggle and they can’t get the answers they need,” Cox said. “Would it be possible for Combined Utilities, since they’re like a $50 million company, to set aside a little bit of money to hire a really good PR person?”

That public relations person could hold meetings monthly with interested parties and those with questions, Cox said.

“‘Bring your light bills — we’ll explain to you, we’ll explain to you why it’s expensive, we’ll explain to you the differences,” Cox said. “I think that PR approach would help a lot of these small businesses.”

Small businesses are the lifeblood of the downtown area, he said.

“We’re not going to get a Fortune 500 company to go to downtown Easley,” Cox said. “If we don’t work together and find a way to resolve these difficulties, downtown Easley is going to continue to lose property values, it’s going to continue to lose tenants and the people that own the businesses are going to find themselves in bankruptcy.

“You’re not the problem, but you can help be a solution by communicating to small businesses why those rates are different and what you can do in playing a role to help people find a better way to get utility hookups, to get their costs under control and look at some evaluations that can keep this company, these people in business far, far into the future.”

Commission chairman Nick Caldwell thanked the group for coming and expressing their concerns at the meeting.

“We do realize that we have some educating to do,” Caldwell said. “Mr. Cox, you’re right. We’ve got to get out in front of the people and let them know why things are the way they are.

“I assure you we’re not a billion-dollar corporation or company. We’re here to do as our mission says.”