During the past 10 months, Lodi Electric Utility employees have found new, creative ways to make sure the power stays off after the city pulls the plug.
Residents who have had their power shut off for not paying their bills have found ways to steal electricity. Some run extension cords to a neighbor’s house while others tamper with the meter box or electrical panel to bypass the shut-off measures.
The utility is now cracking down on the thieves, and the efforts have resulted in residents paying close to $29,000 to make accounts current.
Without enforcement, the Lodi Electric Utility would most likely have never recuperated those costs, and they would be distributed to all of Lodi’s customers, said Rob Lechner, customer service and programs manager.
“This is the part that should make 99.9 percent of our ratepayers feel pretty good,” Lechner said.
The utility started a pilot program last fall to start recapturing costs from residents who bypass the meter after their power is shut off.
Starting July 1, the utility continued to step up enforcement by regularly checking any customer who has their meter sealed for non-payment.
As of Monday, two employees had driven by 185 utility customers this month and found 10 had their power back on. Of those, two came in to pay the next day after their power was shut off again.
“We are going to go after people who are violating city policy and think that energy is free. It is not,” Lechner said.
The utility writes off about $500,000 a year, mostly from unpaid electric bills. But some of that cost also comes from electricity theft, he said.
Aside from the financial incentive to go after the thieves, the utility is also hoping to prevent any injuries or fires.
“It is really, really dangerous stuff. Unless you are a trained professional, you shouldn’t be messing with electricity, especially a panel or meter, because if you slip up, it might be your last,” he said.
One full-time and one part-time employee are spending about 40 percent of their time finding those who steal electricity, Lechner said. They often go out during random hours to see if lights or other devices are on.
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 that also disables the meter to keep it from spinning. People often will destroy the ring or smash the meter.
If someone bypasses it, then the city will remove the meter and place a metal plate over the socket. The final step is for the utility to cut the line servicing the home, which will make it significantly more expensive to turn the power back on.
Residents who keep turning the power back on could also be cited or prosecuted, Lechner said. The community improvement division will issue the citations, and the city attorney’s office will then prosecute them. The penalties include a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail plus court costs.
The utility plans to increase the enforcement in the future to continue to recoup utility costs, Lechner said.
“We all lose when this happens. When people are stealing from us, it doesn’t help the average ratepayer. ... If we turned the other cheek, we would be remiss in our responsibilities,” he said.