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Cutting off electricity theft in Lodi

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Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:09 am, Fri May 6, 2011.

It starts with a power cord fed under the fence into a neighbor’s backyard. Or a resident tampers with their meter box or electrical panel and bypasses the shut-off measures.

The outcome is electricity theft that results in other ratepayers picking up the tab — and more importantly, is a public safety hazard, city spokesman Jeff Hood said.

“Bypassing high voltage equipment means you are possibly endangering yourself and your neighbors in the event of a fire. If you are surreptitiously using extension cords to take power from neighbors, who knows if the cord can handle the load?” Hood said.

Lodi Electric Utility employees recently found that six out of 40 homes that were shut off for non-payment of utility bills had found a way to keep the volts flowing.

Employees disabled the meters even further, and one of the six customers came in to pay their bill the next day, Hood said.

Because of the thefts, Lodi plans to step up enforcement, dedicating a full-time and part-time position to focus on finding those who steal electricity.

When a customer doesn’t pay and the utility seals the meter, city employees now revisit the house to make sure the power is still off, said Rob Lechner, the utility’s customer service and programs manager.

“We choose random hours, and I mean random hours, and we go out and look to see if they turn themselves back on in some fashion. We look for the lights on, or other devices that might be consuming power that we can see,” Lechner said.

If someone is caught, then the Community Improvement Division will issue citations, and the City Attorney’s Office will prosecute anyone who steals or diverts power. The penalties include a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail plus court costs.

The city is asking anyone who sees someone who might be stealing electricity to call 333-6766. Hood said people should look for extension cords or neighbors continuously playing with the meters because only the city should be fixing or working on the devices.

“It’s not about ratting on your neighbor. It’s about protecting your community and your neighborhood,” he said.

The utility writes off about $500,000 a year, mostly from unpaid electric bills. But some of that cost comes from electricity theft, Lechner said.

“To the 99 percent of customers who pay their bill, we are trying to keep them whole,” he said. “Whatever we lose is borne by the utility.”

But more importantly, utility employees are worried about public safety first.

“Some of the measures we have seen, that other utilities have seen, are very creative, but very, very dangerous. ... If customers are trying theft diversion through the panel or the meter, it could lead to death,” Lechner said.

Hood said he does not know how much the enforcement measures will cost, but it is an important city priority.

“If it saves ratepayers some dollars and prevents a fire, injury or worse, then it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s just not fair to responsible utility customers to be subsidizing the cheats.”

The city sent several employees down to Modesto Irrigation District, which is the statewide leader in finding electricity theft. By searching out the thefts, Lechner said the city should get a better grasp on how often people are stealing and how much it is costing the city.

When someone doesn’t pay, Lechner said the city is willing to work with them, and offers a lengthy grace period before shutting off the electricity.

The city will then seal the meter by putting a locking ring in place and also disable the meter to keep it from spinning. He said often people will destroy the ring or smash the meter.

The next step is for the city to remove the meter and place a metal plate over the socket. If push comes to shove, Lechner said the city can cut the line servicing the home, and it will be significantly more expensive to turn the power back on.

Part of the reason the city has to step up enforcement is with digital meters, as no one is inspecting them on a regular basis. In the past, meter readers walked through backyards across the city and could look for any thefts, Lechner said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com or read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/city_buzz.

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  • roy bitz posted at 10:04 pm on Thu, May 5, 2011.

    roy bitz Posts: 489

    I would like to see more give and take on this matter.
    Does it makes good business sense to "dedicate" ( I hope this does not mean hire) a full time and a part time position to deal with this problem?
    If the city is planning to re-assign current employees to deal with this matter--does this mean these employees were not needed in the first place?
    If the city is hiring additional personnel to deal with this problem will these people be able to resolve the problem on a cost effective basis?
    If the city has done the homework and determined this a good value for rate payers--I am in support. of "dedicating" a full time and a part time position to deal with it.
    If not----I am opposed. Very simple!

  • Doug Chaney posted at 11:31 am on Thu, May 5, 2011.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    Mr. Hood, wouldn't the same apply to water thieves? I see a large semi trailer up on legs at the west end of the Reynolds Ranc project, off Harney, 5000 gallons or so, that's hooked up to a city fire hydrant with no water meter/backflow/check valve setup that could possibly contaminate the underground water supply without some type of check valve/backflow setup. Do they pay for their water or does the developer/contractor get it free gratis from Lodi ratepayers?

  • Doug Chaney posted at 9:48 am on Thu, May 5, 2011.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    Mr. Lechner, would it be yourself that gets paid overtime for those "random hours", I assume overtime since most don't use lights during LEUD regular hours, to play detective to catch those who are in violation? I would think since the Community Improvement Division issues the citations that thry should be the department to verify those infractions. LEUD is too full of management and staff, as from my internet research of LEUD and the NCPA, it appears that the NCPA seems to be calling the shots for LEUD through Larry Hansen, who is also chairman of the board of this dysfunctional and costly group, and LEUD management merely utilizes suggestions and orders from this organization. It was between Larry Hansen and the NCPA back in 2005 or so that were assumed responsible for buying the spot power that dropped half of its value soon after that nearly bankrypted LEUD and left the utility nearly $200,000,000 in debt and dropped their credit rating down several brackets, there causing ratepayers of LEUD being forced to pay absurd electric rates and that instituted "ECA cost adjustment" that we still pay today, which is nothing more than an adjustment that guarantees that LEUD and NCPA profit neatly no matter how the electric supply market adjusts, to avoid another catastrophy like the one in 2005. Now, with a "member of the NCPA family" as director and Larry Hansen as chairman of the NCPA board, Lodians continue to pay some of the highest residential rates in the nation. Last time I checked the average nationwide cost per KWH, .095, ours here in Lodi is .142 baseline, .145 over and another .0017 for cost adjustment. That's nearly .05 kwh more than the national average. With the new Lodi energy center, those costs are surely going to rise significantly and the major benefactor will be the NCPA, who apparently will be owner-operator. Management, staff and unneeded programs for large businesses need to be cutback in favor of residential cutbacks and more hands on field employees and residential solar rebates and systems.

  • roy bitz posted at 8:43 am on Thu, May 5, 2011.

    roy bitz Posts: 489

    This article says the city is "dedicating" a full time and a part time position to address electricity theft---that while most of the $500,000 annually written off is due to non payment of bills, some of it is due to theft.
    Hopefully, "dedicating" a full time and a part time employee to resolving theft, will be a good investment of resources.

  • Joe Baxter posted at 8:21 am on Thu, May 5, 2011.

    Joe Baxter Posts: 1795

    I would rather imagine people who steal electricity could care less about their own safety or the safety of anyone else.

  • Robert Jacobs posted at 6:13 am on Thu, May 5, 2011.

    Robert Jacobs Posts: 298

    The CEO could take a 50% cut in pay each year. The board members could take a 50% cut in pay. And you could cut your workers pay about 10% annually and stop all overtime pay from now until the end of time!

    These things would not only help with those who steal electricity but would also help reduce cost overall and then you could start issuing refund checks to your customers.

    There you go problem solved...



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