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UPDATED: Utility companies making adjustments due to coronavirus pandemic

Coosa Valley Electric Cooperative and Alabama Power

Local utilities, such as the Coosa Valley Electric Cooperative (left) and Alabama Power, are adjusting to the new reality that many customers’ means and needs are changing in the coronavirus pandemic.

TALLADEGA COUNTY -- Local utility companies are announcing plans to ease the burden on customers while they are home due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

With many businesses shutting down and employees at home, sometimes without pay, utility companies are reacting to the fact some people may not be able to pay bills for electricity, water, cable and internet.

Alabama Power and Coosa Valley Electric Cooperative have both released statements saying they will not shut off power during the state of emergency.

CVEC, which serves around 17,000 people in Talladega, St. Clair, Shelby, Clay, Etowah and Calhoun counties, warns customers this does not mean their balance will be forgiven, however, according to a statement Thursday. 

“Consumers will still be billed as normal during this time. Accounts will still accrue a balance based on usage just as they normally would,” the company said in a press release. “When the COVID-19 crisis has passed, consumers will still be responsible for paying for the electricity they have used.”

Co-op General Manager Leland Fuller also encouraged customers to pay bills online.

“Fortunately, we have made investments in technology and practices that allow us to conduct business with existing and potential consumers without them having to come into our office,” Fuller said as part of the press release. “We are still here. We will continue working to ensure our consumers have the reliable, affordable service they’ve come to expect from us.”

The cooperative is also connected to Coosa Valley Propane, but company representative Jon Cullimore said it operates as a separate company. He said the gas company will work with customers on a case-by-case basis, but it won't be the same response due to differences in how the companies operate. 

“We won’t be doing the same thing on the propane side,” he said, adding most propane customers pay on delivery to their home. “It's the nature of the propane business.”

Alabama Power in a release Tuesday said, “As always, Alabama Power works with each of our customers to offer resources during this uncertain time. Customers who are affected and have difficulty paying their bills should contact customer service at alabamapower.com or 1-800-245-2244.”

The Alabama Power Foundation and ABC (Alabama Business Charitable) Trust have also partnered with several nonprofit organizations to donate $1 million to help with coronavirus response. 

“Like other foundations, we are closely monitoring the local impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and we are working with community members, government and business partners to determine how we can best offer support to those in need,” said Myla Calhoun, president of the Alabama Power Foundation said in a press release.

Internet providers are facing a different issue. 

With many children and college students out of school, many are using the internet to do class work. With that in mind, Hargray Communications, which covers Pell City and parts of Lincoln, has introduced a program to help support the growing need for internet bandwidth at home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under this program, Hargray will offer free internet services for 60 days to families with students in grades K-12 or college across its service territory who do not already subscribe to Hargray internet. To learn more about this program, visit hargray.com/freeinternet.

Hargray will also offer discounted packages to new customers, and existing customers can upgrade their internet speed tier free for three months to ensure they also have the necessary speeds to accommodate higher internet usage during this time. Call 877-427-4729 to learn more.

The company has also announced it will not be cutting off service during the emergency. 

“Hargray is also proud to announce it has joined the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge launched by the Federal Communications Commission, and in doing so, has committed to waive late fees and not terminate service to residential or small business customers that are unable to pay their bills due to economic circumstances related to coronavirus (COVID-19),” the company said in a press release. 

Tim Kelley, general manager of Hargray, said Thursday he feels these actions are just part of the company’s core mission. 

“Our whole mission is to get communities to connect and thrive,” he said. “This is part of helping out.”

Charter Spectrum which serves areas of Talladega County, announced a similar program March 13, according to a release provided by the company. 

In addition to measures similar to Hargray, Charter will also open all Wi-Fi hotspots throughout their entire coverage area. This will give residents access to the internet in areas where the company has previously operated a closed hotspot.

In the release, Charter also said customers should not worry about disconnection due to extra use on its network.

“The network is built to sustain maximum capacity during peak usage, which is typically in the evenings, so a surge during the day would be well within the network’s capabilities to manage,” the company said. “Charter will continue to closely monitor this dynamic situation and is well-prepared to continue delivering reliable connectivity.”

Another issue that could affect residents is their water bill.

In many areas in St. Clair and Talladega counties, water service is handled by municipalities.

In Lincoln, Mayor Lew Watson said if a water customer needs help, the city will help them during the emergency situation. He warns customers still need to be communicating with the city about any issues.

“You can't just ignore the situation, they gotta call us,” Watson said. 

Despite this, Watson said he had no plans to cut most customers off.

“In most cases, we probably are gonna delay any disconnect,” he said. 

Pell City Manager Brian Muenger said at present, the municipality is not looking at any changes to its water service beyond telling customers to pay online. He added that special circumstances are being considered. 

“We are working with customers on a case-by-case basis to deal with special circumstances.” Muenger said. 

Attempts to reach Talladega City Manager Beth Cheeks were not immediately successful on Thursday.

Taylor Mitchell, Daily Home reporter covering Pell City.

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