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Kimberly Armbruster let the phone fall from her ear and cursed. 

Her boyfriend had been on the line. He had ventured into her apartment for something. “Babe, your lights are shut off,” he said. Armbruster let out a sigh and said little more than, “OK.”  

She hung up and returned to class, feeling downtrodden.

“I already have problems, and when I have more problems added to my problems, it just makes me freak out, even if it’s stupid little things. It’s just like, layers of my life,” Armbruster recalls. “I was like, ‘Of course they got shut off. What else?’ ”

This was supposed to be her new start. She had worked so hard for this, struggled so much for it, and now she was finally here, in Clark Hall, on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Armbruster, who had grown up in and out of the Salvation Army shelter, who had run away from her parents at 13, who got her GED from Seeds of Literacy at 19, who had been forced to wait until she was 24, independent of her parents, to start college at Cuyahoga Community College. Who had found, to her surprise, that she was actually good at school, that her quiet and resolute demeanor earned her A’s, that her A’s could get her into a miraculous transfer program. Her, Kimberly Armbruster, with the determined smile and dimpled chin. By the summer of 2018, she had made it into one of the top 50 colleges in the country. It was her own little slice of the American dream.

But her utility bills still dogged her. For years, she had juggled payments, spending as wisely as she could on rent, food and books. Her only source of regular income was her monthly Social Security payment, and the infrequent refunds and stipends she got from school. Sometimes that was enough to pay for her life and her power and gas bills. Other times, there was not enough money to go around.

That was especially true when her Cleveland Public Power bills came due. She had moved into her house, the bottom level of a duplex in Cudell, in 2014. Her CPP bills were cheaper then, she recalls, often around $40 or $50. She could always pay them on time. But over the years, the amount CPP charged her had gone up. “At the beginning, my bill was doable, I was paying my bill regularly,” says Armbruster. “After it got over $100 is when I started having problems.”

As her bills creeped up, Armbruster began to put off paying them until she got tuition refunds from her school. Sometimes, she waited up to four months, running the risk of a shut-off. It was a gamble, and she sometimes lost. 

CPP turned off her power twice, once during a particularly cold fall. She was able to stay with her boyfriend, who lived on the upper level of the duplex. His CPP power was also turned off, but he borrowed money from family to turn it back on. A whole month passed before Armbruster’s school refund arrived and her half of the house saw light again.

And now here she was, at the very start of her new beginning, repeating history. She dreaded returning to that darkened house, fumbling for doorknobs, opening the fridge to find the food turning dank inside. After class let out, she put off going home. She stayed on campus for the rest of the day, nestling into her favorite couch at the Tinkham Veale University Center. She browsed the internet, the thought gnawing in the back of her head: I won’t have this at home either. Eventually, she made her way to the GCRTA Red Line station and rode the subway home. She went straight to her boyfriend’s place. “I just got home, unwound, got comfy, and was talking about, like, ‘What am I going to do?’ and trying to come up with a plan,” she says. 

Armbruster decided to use most of her summer stipend, which her academic program, the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, had given her to acclimate to school, to pay off everything she owed to CPP.

“Every time they shut you off, you can’t give them a little bit. You can’t give them half of it, or close to the total. You have to give them the full balance. I’ve learned that,” she says. “When I was paying my bill, they were accepting what I was giving them and still shut me off. I took that as, well, ‘You’ll get your payment in full when I’m able to give to you in full.’ ”

She put the payment through on Aug. 6, 2018, three days after the summer program ended. It was the largest payment she had made in a long time: $717.98. But sending that number down to zero was a relief.

“I was about to start at Case and I wanted a fresh start. That’s how I feel every time I pay my bills completely off. Like, OK, this is a fresh start and I’m never going to let it get to this again,” says Armbruster. “But it always happens that way.”

Armbruster is far from the only one struggling to keep up with CPP and other bills. According to a 2016 report by the American Council For an Energy-Efficient Economy, Cleveland ranks 10th-worst out of 48 major cities for the largest energy burdens on low-income people. Low-income households in Cleveland spend about 8.5% of their annual income on utilities; the norm is 3.5%. 

Unlike other cities, however, Cleveland has what is supposed to be a safeguard against high energy costs: Cleveland Public Power. The storied utility, owned by the city, has power lines stretching into nearly 74,000 homes and businesses across the East and West sides of Cleveland. About 65,000 CPP customers, like Armbruster, are residential. CPP was founded in 1904 with the explicit purpose of keeping energy prices low for everyone by setting them below investor-owned competitors. But CPP’s bills have soared higher and higher, and the least-advantaged Clevelanders are paying the price.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, CPP residential customers saw a large spike in their bills. CPP’s disclosures to its bondholders, available through the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, show that the average monthly bill a CPP residential customer paid for 750 kilowatt-hours of electricity increased from $90.39 in 2012 to $114.88 in 2019. The sharpest increase came from 2016 to 2018, when the average monthly bill shot up by more than $15. 

CPP’s customers are struggling because of the utility’s self-inflicted wounds. CPP has let its prices soar because of 50-year deals to buy power, which are pulling the utility into a “death spiral” that consultants warned about more than a decade ago. That spiral was already gathering speed before the pandemic and was accelerated by a campaign financed by CPP’s competitor, FirstEnergy. 

The number of CPP shut-offs for nonpayment also increased from 2017 to 2019, following a sharp spike in CPP bills. By 2017, the average monthly CPP residential bill had grown to $109.04. Data supplied to Cleveland Magazine by the independent grassroots advocacy group Utilities For All, which acquired it through public records requests reviewed by the magazine, shows that the number of residential CPP customers whose service was turned off for nonpayment more than doubled from 2017 to 2018, going from 3,646 to 7,746. By 2019, 8,253 overall CPP customers, including commercial and industrial, had experienced a shut-off.

Cleveland Magazine detailed all of the findings in this story, point-by-point, in an email to a CPP spokesperson on Feb. 4 and requested an interview with the CPP commissioner or Martin Keane, the head of the Department of Public Utilities. That interview request was denied. After multiple follow-ups via email and telephone seeking a written response, which the magazine gave CPP one week to formulate, CPP declined to comment.

It looked as if the wave of shut-offs would continue into 2020. But the pandemic brought an unexpected reprieve. As the country shut down last March, Mayor Frank Jackson announced a moratorium on shut-offs for city-controlled utilities, including CPP. No one would lose power or water if they couldn’t pay. Shut-off customers were even reconnected. 

The moratorium was a godsend for Armbruster. She had always lived in fear of the CPP trucks that rumbled down her street. But she didn’t have to worry during the moratorium. When the lights flickered, she’d call to check on the situation, and found relief. “I would call, and [ask] ‘Is there a power outage?’ ” she says. “Thank God.”

But that moratorium ended on Dec. 1, 2020. Shut-offs can now technically resume, though the city has said it will be following its informal policy not to shut off utilities during the “winter months.” (CPP declined to specify on which date or under what weather conditions shut-offs would resume.)

Warm weather could bring back hardship for CPP’s least-advantaged customers. Research by Indiana University shows that 3.8 million Americans could not pay at least one energy bill since last May. And in Cleveland, where before the pandemic 32% of adults lived in poverty, a Cleveland State University study found that the city ranked fourth worst for pandemic job losses in the country. 

Many Clevelanders who were struggling to pay their utility bills before the pandemic found it doubly difficult as the moratorium expired in December. Data acquired by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative in November found that 28,500 CPP customers, more than 35% of CPP’s customer base, were at least one month behind. 

Now the moratorium is gone, and the coronavirus recession is set to continue into the spring and summer. Many CPP customers will have even less ability to pay their bills than before. In early January, as Armbruster headed back to school for a final semester of Zoom classes, she owed CPP $383.06.

“I’m not in it to get rich. I just want to survive and not have my lights off and have food in my belly. I just want the basic necessities. I don’t care about vacationing and fancy cars,” says Armbruster. “I just want to live.”

Higher bills and more shut-offs affect customers like Armbruster. But they are also a sign of trouble for CPP. Since its beginning, CPP has been locked in a war of attrition with the Illuminating Co. (also called the Cleveland Electrical Illuminating Co. or CEI). Through pricing and lawsuits and mechanical roadblocks and infamously forcing the city into default, various versions of CEI, which is now owned by FirstEnergy, have tried to inconvenience, hinder, maim and outright kill CPP for over a hundred years. CPP survived it all by holding doggedly to a pitch that resonated with notoriously penny-pinching Clevelanders: at least our bills are lower than theirs. 

That pitch was successful through the mid-2000s. Seven years of CPP’s annual bond disclosures, which compared internal CPP data and CEI data from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, show that CPP’s average monthly residential bills were neck-and-neck with CEI until 2016. 

Then something changed. CPP’s residential bills shot up while CEI’s stayed steady, and by 2018 CEI bills were almost 15% lower than CPP. In 2019, CEI dropped its rates, widening the gap even further and beating CPP by 19%. CEI’s bills for commercial and industrial customers were less too that year, sitting at 16% and 33% less respectively. In 2019, CEI residential customers paid $96.53 on average for 750 kWh of power to CPP customers’ $114.88. (Charges will fluctuate month-to-month depending on how much power you use, but when averaged out over the year most homes use about 877 kWh per month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

“Utility rates are an important part of a family’s budget,” says City Council President Kevin Kelley. “Cleveland Public Power needs to run better, it needs to do better, in both its capital operation and how it delivers service to customers.”

As CPP was losing the pricing battle, it was also shutting off a higher percentage of its customers than CEI. According to CPP data provided to Cleveland Magazine by Utilities for All and publicly available filings from PUCO, CEI has shut off a much lower percentage of its residential customers — between 2% and 3% each year — than CPP from 2014 to 2019. 

CPP serves a poorer and smaller group of residential customers than CEI, and so its shut-off rates were as high as 16% in the years following the foreclosure crisis, which decimated many Clevelanders. As the economy recovered and more people could pay their bills again, fewer were shut off. In 2017, for instance, CPP shut off about 6% of its residential customers. But that percentage grew to almost 12% in 2018. In 2019, CPP shut off about 11% of its overall customer base.

Cleveland Magazine attempted to independently acquire residential and commercial shut-off data from CPP via a public records request filed on Jan. 7. The city denied the request for being “overbroad” a month later, after the magazine reached out for comment on this story. CPP declined to comment as to whether high bills, or some other factor, was the cause of the pre-pandemic increase in shut-offs.

The rising shut-offs and the spike in CPP bills were practically an invitation to pounce, and CEI’s parent company, FirstEnergy, did so with the speed of a seasoned predator. In 2018, as CPP’s bills reached a peak, a nonprofit called Consumers Against Deceptive Fees, which and The Plain Dealer have revealed was partially financed by FirstEnergy, began an aggressive campaign to take advantage of the organic groundswell of unhappy CPP customers. 

The nonprofit hired lobbyists to meet with Cleveland City Council members and bandy about sample legislation, pitched stories to reporters about CPP’s problems, and blanketed the city with mailers and Facebook ads decrying CPP’s high rates. One Consumers Against Deceptive Fees flyer urged CPP customers to “call City Council and demand the same electrical rate as the rest of Cleveland.”

Cleveland City Council has launched an investigation into Consumers Against Deceptive Fees. In February, it issued its first subpoena in 20 years, seeking documents from the now-closed nonprofit. Two more subpoenas were issued soon after. Mayor Jackson is also contemplating whether to sue FirstEnergy for its involvement. 

“Cleveland Public Power has its own challenges. They’re technical challenges, operational challenges. But it’s extremely important to the city of Cleveland that this asset be successful,” says Kelley. “That somebody would be spreading this kind of false information to basically undermine the efforts of CPP, and basically destabilize it, it is a problem.”

FirstEnergy’s efforts piled kindling onto a fire already lit by CPP itself. By 2017, according to its own bond disclosures, CPP could claim the dubious title of most expensive utility in the state. It held that title through 2018 and 2019. As if that weren’t bad enough, a presentation from a consultant’s report from 2019, commissioned by CPP and published by 3News, showed that the utility was riven with a dysfunctional culture. It didn’t use modern tools like a digital mapping system, was locked into overly expensive energy purchase contracts, had a depreciated infrastructure that was “unacceptable, unsafe and an outlier compared with other similarly sized utilities” and suffered from frequent outages.

Indeed, one Ohio City CPP customer, who contacted Cleveland Magazine via email, said that last year he experienced four power outages in the space of a week. To make sure he wasn’t left in the dark and his electronics weren’t damaged, he purchased several hundred dollars of LED lamps, stoves, a solar-powered radio and other camping equipment (he sent pictures). Another emailer, who owns side-by-side buildings, one serviced by CPP and the other by CEI, said that the CPP building didn’t have power roughly three times as often as the CEI one in 2019.

In October 2019, Mayor Jackson suspended CPP’s longtime commissioner, Ivan Henderson, after CPP lost two of its largest commercial accounts. Henderson resigned in December. But it was too little too late. The bond disclosures show CPP had already hit a new low in 2018 and 2019, one it had not seen at any point in the prior decade: an overall net loss of customers to CEI. 

For many Clevelanders, the most common thing that brings CPP to mind is not its bright-orange bills, but the big blue whales. They dive and crest and splash across a massive lakeside mural beside the Shoreway, and have distracted many a passerby from the vital task of driving. The mural, called “Song of the Whales,” was painted by Robert Wyland in 1997. It is 300 feet long and 108 feet tall and, by the sheer happenstance of the wall it is painted on, is CPP’s most prominent piece of advertising. Whenever you look at the whales, you are also seeing CPP’s former municipal power plant. 

But CPP’s legacy stretches much further back than one mural. The idea that a power company should be owned by the citizens, rather than by investors, sprang from the Progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th century. It was most prominently promoted in Cleveland by Mayor Tom L. Johnson, who first came into office in 1901. Cleveland was then home to the era’s largest and most aggressive monopoly, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and Johnson believed that public ownership of utilities could discourage monopolistic behavior and provide the public with cheap basic necessities. 

The idea of a public power company, however, was vigorously opposed by the city’s business community, and especially Charles F. Brush, the entrepreneur and inventor of the arc lamp. Brush had founded a company called Cleveland Electrical Illuminating in 1892. By the time Johnson took office, CEI was supplying electricity to most of Cleveland and its suburbs, and threatened to grow into a monopoly of its own. Johnson decided to start a publicly owned competitor to CEI, and introduced legislation to finance the new company into city council in May 1903. CEI and the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce lobbied hard against it, and the proposal failed. But Johnson, an idealistic fighter, turned to Cleveland’s voters. They approved the idea in a 1904 referendum, creating the utility called Municipal Light.

A Johnson acolyte, Mayor Newton D. Baker, refined his mentor’s project in the years after Johnson left office. Baker viewed Muny as a “yardstick.” By setting its own rates low, Muny would force CEI to do the same to compete. (Newton applied the same principle elsewhere, even setting up a municipal fish-catching company to push down the market price of Lake Erie fish.) Baker set Muny’s rates to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, far lower than CEI’s 10 cents. That price was challenged several times, but Muny’s rates remained lower than CEI. In its first eight years, Newton later claimed, Muny saved Clevelanders $14 million, or $208 million in today’s dollars.

In the decades that followed, Muny survived the Great Depression, a takeover attempt from CEI in 1942, and the development of a time-honored tradition among Cleveland politicians: supporting or bashing Muny to get elected. Even the great Carl Stokes knew the value of the issue. He took a critical stance toward Muny in his first run for mayor in 1965. Muny customers were then clustered on the West Side, so when Stokes promised to sell the utility, it cost him little support among his East Side base and built a small but important bridge to the city’s business leaders. He was elected the first Black mayor of a major American city in 1967. (The sale did not go through.) 

On the opposite side of the Muny issue was Dennis Kucinich. In the mid-1970s, with the city in poor financial shape and Muny deeply in debt to CEI for power it had purchased, Mayor Ralph Perk and City Council President George Forbes struck a deal to sell the system to CEI. Kucinich organized the Save Muny Light Committee to oppose the sale, which helped propel him, all of 31 years old, into the mayor’s office in November 1977. As mayor, Kucinich still refused to sell, and the situation devolved into historically epic dysfunction, with Kucinich and CEI-allied banks, who had refused to roll over the city’s debt, at loggerheads. The city infamously defaulted. 

Since then, Cleveland’s politicians have generally been supporters of public power. Kucinich was followed by business-friendly Republican George Voinovich, who rebranded Muny as Cleveland Public Power. During the 1980s and ’90s, CPP expanded to both sides of town, competed more vigorously with CEI, and, during the administration of Mike White, commissioned that whale mural. 

CPP was created, and saved many times, because its most ardent supporters believed in high-minded ideals about the good of publicly owned utilities. But they were also clearheaded about CPP’s value to residents. For many years, CPP listed how much each customer had saved over CEI on its bills. True believers saved CPP over and over. But everyday Clevelanders embraced it for a far simpler reason: it was cheaper than the competition.  

Looking back now, Joyce Manz pinpoints the start of her troubles with CPP to a single phone call seven years ago. Her fiance had suddenly died, and she found herself talking with the power company, trying to get his name off her bills. Manz, who is disabled and relies on a monthly $904 Social Security check for all of her income, hoped to transfer the account to her brother, who lives with her and takes care of her. But the call-taker refused. “I called repeatedly, month after month after month,” says Manz. “It took me six months and me crying to some rep about how I had to get this bill out of his name so that if something happened we could get help.”

Manz has also watched with dismay as her bills grew larger than she can afford. Her brother supplements her income with part-time jobs, like working security for the Cleveland Browns. But with $650 a month going to rent, the most they can pay for power, Manz says, is $100 a month. Her CPP bills have increased far beyond that. Her West Side house has all electric appliances — an electric range and stove, an electric heater, an air conditioner that she needs to keep running due to several medical conditions — and in 24 months of CPP bills stretching back to 2014, which Manz supplied to Cleveland Magazine, her monthly charges often exceeded $115, some by large amounts. Though she got assistance from the Home Energy Assistance Program, Joyce and her brother Erin could not keep up. In 2018, Erin filed for bankruptcy, in part because of $4,900 of piled-up CPP bills.

On her CPP bills, Manz noticed, the biggest charges were from something called the Energy Adjustment Charge, which seemed to get larger with each passing year. “Last month was $80, but the EAC was double that,” says Manz. “When it was August, that hot one we had, the electric bill was $150 and the EAC was another $200 on top of it.”

Manz was not the only one confused by the EAC charge. CPP customers have frequently expressed consternation about it to local news outlets. But in hearings to City Council this fall, CPP explained the meaning behind the EAC. On a CPP residential bill, there are three charges: a winter or summer “base rate,” a state tax and the EAC. The base rates, which charge a customer based on the amount of electricity they use, are set by City Council and have not changed since the 1980s. CPP uses the money it collects from base rates to pay for trucks, poles, staff, transformers and wires. The EAC, meanwhile, is set by CPP and the mayor’s administration, with no direct Council oversight. Like the base rate, it is charged to a customer based on the amount of power they use. CPP uses that money to pay for that magical stuff that hums along the wires.

An additional hidden charge, called the environmental adjustment, is also part of the EAC rate. CPP’s failure to disclose the environmental adjustment on customer bills is the subject of an ongoing $188 million class action lawsuit. The city maintains the hidden fee is legal, and temporarily stopped charging it in 2013. According to The Plain Dealer, the charges began again in 2016. CPP’s average monthly residential bills per 750 kWh, according to its bond disclosures, increased from $99.48 to $114.88 in the years afterward.

In City Council hearings, however, CPP attributed the rise in EAC rates to the fact that it now pays more for power. For many decades, CPP was the do-it-all version of a power company. It burned its own coal and generated its own electricity, which it sent into the homes and businesses of its own customers. But that is no longer the case. CPP doesn’t generate power anymore. It is exclusively in the delivery business: it buys power from other generators, which it then sends zipping along the lines to its customers. 

Its main source of humming electrons is American Municipal Power, a Columbus-based nonprofit that serves 135 public power systems across nine states. CPP is one of AMP’s largest members, and its fate is bound up with AMP’s. Henderson, who was until December 2019 the CPP commissioner, sat on AMP’s board. Now so does Keane, the former city councilman and chair of the utilities committee who Mayor Jackson appointed director of public utilities in January. Today, the majority of the electricity that CPP supplies to customers is purchased from AMP. 

An analysis of the price of power from two AMP plants in which the city has an ownership stake, published last September by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a well-respected international research organization headquartered in Lakewood, found them to be a “financial disaster.”

IEEFA estimated that between 2012 and 2019 CPP paid at least $106 million more for energy from the two plants, Prairie State and Combined Hydro, than if it had just walked down the street to the proverbial electricity store and paid sticker price for whatever lightning bolts were on the shelves. 

The $106 million cost of those bad deals, says David Schlissel, IEEFA’s director of resource planning analysis, was passed on to customers like Manz. “If the cost of replacement power goes up, somebody’s got to pay for it,” says Schlissel. “And the somebodies are the customers.”

The city signed 50-year contracts to purchase power from Prairie State and Combined Hydro in 2007. The contracts were part of a package deal with another plant AMP planned to build in Meigs County. But a report by ION Consulting, hired by CPP to evaluate the deal, found the Meigs County plant to be a risky proposition. For one, a massive new coal generator would be unpopular, especially as public awareness about climate change rose and green technology came into vogue. 

Just as important, however, was ION’s big-picture warning: locking CPP into 50-year contracts could be disastrous in the event CPP began to lose customers. Fewer customers would lead to “increasing costs for the remainder,” the consultants wrote, “and this could quickly lead to the ‘death spiral’ that most utilities feared would come from deregulation in the 1990s.” 

CPP Commissioner Henderson and Mayor Jackson’s administration promoted the package to City Council nonetheless, saying it would modestly increase CPP customers’ bills but would insulate CPP from the vagaries of the open energy market, where Henderson predicted prices were going to rocket up. Henderson framed the package, and especially the Meigs County plant, as necessary for CPP’s survival. “Adding this plant to our portfolio will keep us below market rates,” Henderson said, according to The Plain Dealer.

Despite concern from some council members about the five-decade length and the vague terms of the package, City Council, at the time led by president Martin Sweeney, approved it, voting once to accept the trio of contracts and then again to stay in the Meigs County contract months later, after the ION report came out.

Facing heavy criticism from environmental groups and a huge price tag, AMP killed the Meigs County project the next year. But the city has remained locked into the deals for Prairie State, in which it took a 7% ownership stake, and the Combined Hydro project, of which the city owns 17%, since then. According to CPP’s bond disclosures and a presentation to Council, the two plants supply about 20% of CPP’s power. 

“Cleveland Public Power is bound by some very bad contracts,” says Kelley. “Natural gas has been driving prices down, and being able to buy off the grid, CEI has been able to take advantage of that. CPP has taken some advantage of it, but not to the level that others can because of these contracts.”

Despite pressure from City Council to do so, CPP has not yet said whether it plans to renegotiate any AMP contracts. It declined to comment on that, the IEEFA report or whether it is doing anything else to bring down the cost of the power it buys.

EAC charges on customers’ bills are now often higher than the base rate. On Manz’s September 2020 bill, for instance, she was charged $151.70 in base rates, and another $155.19 in EAC charges. 

On top of that, a consultant’s report has raised the possibility of a double whammy: raising the base rates too. A briefing document from a 2019 report by Newgen Consultants, published by News3, called the deals with AMP “poorly vetted” and “above market,” while decrying CPP as “a poorly functioning organization with unchecked decision making.” The surest way to make CPP viable in the long term, the briefing said, would be to raise customers’ base rates by double digits.

The city, in statements to 3News and Council, said the briefing document did not reflect CPP’s actual recommendations. But it has not dismissed the idea of raising base rates outright. One of the many topics that CPP chose not to comment on to Cleveland Magazine was whether it is considering raising base rates. 

When asked what would happen to her if the base rates on her CPP bill also went up, Armbruster said: “I’ll be f----d. I can barely pay them now.”

Armbruster will graduate from Case in May. She dreams of starting a nonprofit to help runaway teens, like she once was. In January, she was putting together a graduate school application for the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case, where she hoped to learn more about social work, and contemplating applying for an internship at the Cleveland Foundation. “I want to give back to other teenage girls that didn’t have them the same access that I had, just show them tools I’ve learned,” says Armbruster.

That month, she also had a past-due balance of $383.06. After the moratorium ended, two funds of money from the CARES Act, worth a combined $9 million were assembled to help people like her. (City Council also authorized another $5 million in aid for utilities, rent and other resources in December.) Armbruster applied for one of the CARES Act funds, she says, emailing in proof of income and her need, but never heard back. In February, she received her long-awaited tuition refund, allowing her to pay off the amount.

It was not her first bad experience with an assistance program; in 2019, Armbruster applied to the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, for help with her gas and CPP bills. Armbruster was told there was a bureaucratic screw-up, and HEAP had only paid her gas bill. She had to pay the CPP one on her own.

Manz has also found HEAP inadequate, because of the size of her bills. In September 2020, for instance, Manz was charged $316.13 for that month, $155.19 of it from EAC charges. CPP asked her to pay the total as well as her past-due balance, for a whopping total of $1,650.92. In the past, she and her brother have received $500 from HEAP, but it was never enough to cover their entire back balance.

HEAP is the only assistance program CPP offers. Because CPP is not regulated by PUCO, its customers do not get access to the state’s Percentage of Income Payment Plan program, which would cap the amount they pay for electricity at either 6% of their household income or $10 per month. 

Manz has thought many times about switching to CEI just to get access to PIPP. But when she called CPP to close her account, she was told that switching would require her or her landlord to pay $2,000 so that CPP could restring its power lines. “If that’s the case, then why does the house I share a driveway with have CEI? And when I moved in, why was I offered CEI?” says Manz. 

Manz has also been offered a “payment plan” in the past: her full monthly charge, plus a third of her back balance, which at the time would have been three payments of roughly $400. “I can’t pay $700. What’s going to make me pay $400?” says Manz. “Their payment structure is screwed up.”

CPP declined to comment on its aid programs or its payment plans.

As of January, Manz owed CPP about $1,900. She has managed to dodge disconnection only by keeping a doctor’s note on file. But she still worries about a shut-off. CPP had previously turned off power to the house while her sister-in-law, who uses an electrically powered oxygen machine, was living there, says Manz, even though they had put her doctor’s note on file with CPP. “If it’s dark and I get up to go to the bathroom and trip and fall, I’m on blood thinners, I could kill myself just by falling,” Manz says.

Manz’s and Armbruster’s experiences have turned them into activists. Both have previously shared their stories at events organized by End Poverty Now and Utilities For All. In February, Utilities For All was circulating a petition to extend the city’s moratorium until the end of the pandemic.

No plan has yet emerged from the Jackson administration for how to stabilize CPP and bring down its bills. CPP’s interim commissioner, Joy Perry, retired in January. She was replaced by Richard Barton, now CPP’s second interim commissioner in more than a year. Issues at CPP are sure to feature prominently in the mayor’s race, in which Kucinich and Kelley are both expected to compete.

But for struggling everyday customers like Armbruster, their problems with utility bills are far more personal. Armbruster has worked hard to move up in life. She has gone to school, got her degree, found her purpose. But a shock of anxiety still rushes through her every time she sees a Dominion or CPP truck drive past her house. 

“I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to be better with my life, so I can pay my bills monthly,” says Armbruster. “I don’t like living in fear.”

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