Utility’s “Opt-Out” Scheme Uses Customer Funds as Charity Contribution

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June 17, 2014; Chattanooga Times Free Press

The North Georgia Electric Membership Corp., which serves seven counties, has a program that rounds all electrical bills up to the next dollar, and in March, it “opted in” all of its customers. Not all of them are so happy with the giving scheme, called Operation Round Up.

When customers had to opt in, participation was only at 3 percent of the 98,000-person customer base. Now, since customers have to consciously opt out, participation is at 76 percent, and the cooperative expects to see a $30,000 monthly return from the program, up from the previous $1,200 a month.

Some locals are not pleased. “There are thousands of people who struggle to make ends meet each month, and many of them are not going to scrutinize their electric bill’s fine print to see they are now being ‘taxed’ by NGEMC,” said Peter J. Cutt, a local businessman. “While some people—like me—might catch this slick little change and immediately opt out, I have no doubt that there are many people who will have no idea that they are now contributing.”

The most any customer will pay toward the program is $11.88 annually, but the average customer will pay about $6.

“We tried to give people plenty of notice,” said Laura Sparks of the utility, who said notices were placed in customers’ bills in January and February and in March’s newsletter. “We feel strongly as a cooperative that that’s a big part of our mission, that we are part of the community, that we give back to the community.” To date, money raised in this way has gone to programs that support literacy, provide children’s vision screening, and support the Special Olympics, she said.

Right, but this is customers’ money, apparently being used to make the corporation look generous.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Kim Gamel

    The following information was not included in your summary and the title is quite contrary to the reality.

    As a member owned, non-profit cooperative, North Georgia EMC is committed to its members and the communities in which they reside. Operation Round Up serves as a vehicle that provides the members with an opportunity to give a small amount, by rounding up their monthly power bills, to collectively make a substantial and meaningful difference in the local communities. As noted on all publications and the NGEMC website, all credit and appreciation is given to the members who participate in the program and desire to have a positive influence on their local communities.

    The ORU program is facilitated by the North Georgia Electric Membership Foundation, which is a state-chartered 501(c)(3) organization responsible for the oversight of providing grant assistance, requested by application, to local nonprofit agencies for civic, educational, and social work dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in the North Georgia EMC service area. The Foundation is led by a Board of Trustees composed of seven unpaid volunteer members, appointed by the NGEMC board of directors. As an important partner to the NGEMC Foundation, the Northwest Georgia Community Foundation, which serves all seven counties in NGEMC’s territory, is responsible for the verification of ORU grant applications and provides professional advisors to assist the Trustees throughout the award process.

    NGEMC communicated the transition to an “opt out” program to each customer over a period of 60 days via multiple bill inserts, website announcements, and television media. Additionally, explanations about ORU continue to be printed every month on all bills that are rounded up.
    Other helpful notes:
    •Multiple, convenient “opt out” methods are available and have been communicated to members.
    •NGEMC will promptly provide refunds to any member who contributes to ORU in error or by oversight.
    •Contributions range from 1 cent to 99 cents monthly, with most consumers averaging about 50 cents a month — just $6 per year.
    •Monthly contributions are listed on each bill. Yearly contributions for tax records are listed on December and January bills.
    •100% of the money collected through ORU goes to local non-profit agencies serving residents in Catoosa, Chattooga, Floyd, Gordon, Murray, Walker, and Whitfield counties.