Customer calls to the Vero Beach Utility Department are up 40 percent since 2004 - when fuel adjustment changes started to escalate - and many of those are about increased costs, said department Manager John Lee.

With summer air-conditioner usage up, typical city bills are averaging $300 to $400 a month. Add to that customer worries about increased gasoline bills and homeowners insurance and "they want to vent their frustration."

Initially, "I get a lot of yelling," said customer service representative Lisa Kottwitz. "People say they feel like we are trying to run them out of town."

It is to the point the City Council tentatively has approved hiring a fifth person to answer the phones. Calls are coming in at a rate of about eight an hour, or 1,200 a week. The city already has an automated answering system for handling more routine calls about payments and account balances.

"Technically, you are subject to being disconnected 45 days after we bill you," Lee said. "The truth is that of all our 35,000 accounts, only 15 percent get a reminder notice. That comes out two days after the payment is due. Two weeks, later we make an automated reminder call.

"As you can see, the balance is growing with each passing day," he said. "There is no easy way to determine who will pay and who will not. So allowing long-term payment arrangements could result in increased bad debt write-offs, which impacts the rates for all of the customers."

In Indian River County, Florida Power and Light Co. serves another 47,900 customers and it too is getting more phone calls. FPL spokeswoman Pat Davis attributes that to higher summer electrical use making people pay closer attention to the bills.

This year, FPL bills began showing the additional fuel charge the company passes on to customers. In January, FPL increased fuel charges by 19 percent. Currently, FPL charges $108.61 per 1,000 kilowatts of electricity, of which 54 percent are pass-through fuel charges, she said. That doesn't include taxes and local franchise fees.

Two years ago, the city of Vero Beach's fuel-adjustment charge was $13.30 per thousand kilowatt hours. In June 2004, that increased to $23.48. By July 2005, it went to $26.98. Then in November, it was $48.20.

For a 2,000-square-foot house using 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, the city's current monthly bill is $444.59, Lee said. That's about a $100 increase over what customers paid before the fuel-adjustment charges started escalating in 2004, he said.

Vero Beach gets virtually all its power from a power cooperative, the Florida Municipal Power Association. And city officials are hearing there may be another 10 percent increase in fuel charges in the next year.

"A mild winter in the northern part of our country combined with adequate fuel storage could result in a softening of the price for natural gas. On the other hand, a harsh winter could drive the fuel prices even higher," Lee said. " We will all have to wait and see what actually happens."

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