Although hundreds of Black Hills Energy customers took to Facebook this week to express their anger at sudden increases in their utility bills this winter, only one person showed up to vent their anger.
An account under the name Michael White created a Facebook event for a protest Friday outside the Black Hills Energy administrative office in Cheyenne.
Although 26 Facebook users responded to the notice to say they were going to the event and 252 responded they were interested, Cheyenne resident Lisa Oleson was the only one to show up.
Bills On Parade
Oleson told Cowboy State Daily she owns a trailer home in South Fork Mobile Home Park in Cheyenne, but no one lives in it.
She said she keeps the heat on low to prevent the pipes from freezing. That was enough for her to get a $288.30 bill in December from Black Hills.
She said she kept trying to reach someone at the company and was given a number for a supervisor, but that didn’t produce results.
“I’ve left five messages, and he doesn’t get back to me,” Oleson said.
She asked one person at the company who answered the phone if she could go to the office and talk to someone, but Black Hills doesn’t have an office that’s open to the public.
“I think they’re afraid someone will get inside and go postal,” Oleson said.
Peaceful And Not Fiery
Black Hills wasn’t taking any chances Friday.
Concerned they might get a wave of angry protestors outside the administrative office in response to the Facebook post, the company brought in a security guard to patrol the parking lot in front of the building.
Reece Gemaehlich drove to Cheyenne from Sidney, Nebraska, to keep order if things got out of control.
“I was the only one who wanted to come and deal with any protesters,” Gemaehlich told Cowboy State Daily.
Though upset with how unresponsive the company was to her inquiries, Oleson, who said she’s disabled, was civil.
Billing In The Name Of
Mark Stege, vice president of operations for Black Hills, did come out to the parking lot to have a conversation with Oleson.
“We want to answer your questions,” Stege told Oleson, and he apologized that she had to come down to the office.
Stege suggested she contact the office for a free energy efficiency assessment, which can help homeowners identify ways to lower their utility bills. Oleson told Stege that she was told the company couldn’t do that.
“We can do lots of stuff,” Stege assured her.
When Oleson was asked if she thought Stege had addressed her concerns and would finally get some help for her problem, Oleson said she wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know. I keep getting the runaround,” Oleson said.
Stege told Cowboy State Daily that utility bills are facing the same inflationary pressures as all other goods and services. Natural gas prices have gone up significantly, and he said Black Hills doesn’t make any money off the natural gas it sells to customers. The company just passes the product through to people’s homes.
“We don’t like this any more than anyone else,” Stege said.
He said it also didn’t help that January was the coldest since 2008.
Bills On Parade
People are expressing a lot of frustration online over the spikes in their utility bills.
“I know this has been ranted on prior, but I just got my Black Hills Energy bill. What’s the point in being on budget billing if they are going to raise it every month? And why is it going up $23.00 every month, yet I’m using less,” Gina Mayhan commented in the Cheyenne Rants and Raves Facebook group.
Wheatland resident Bella Cabrera-Kraft also is on budget billing. Her bill jumped from $54 in December, which included $38.75 in credits, to $100.75 in January.
“I’ve never paid more than $113 in years,” Cabrera-Kraft told Cowboy State Daily.
Robin Jo Bocanegra talked in the group about a fundraiser to help people who are having trouble paying their bills.
“Honestly, we are hoping BHE [Black Hills Energy] comes through and makes this right so we don’t have to burden our community with this,” Bocanegra wrote.
Later that day, she posted a photo of a Black Hills Energy mug on her desk.
“Someone on my team has a great sense of humor,” she wrote.
A ‘Sore Subject’
Cheyenne resident Gary Krause posted that people should consider boycotting Black Hills to strike back at the company for charging so much.
“It’s wrong on every level. If people did boycott them, it might not help, but it would let them know we are serious,” Krause told Cowboy State Daily.
“How many people are going to have to go without heat? Something needs to change,” Krause continued. “Because most people can’t afford $500 or $600 heat bills.”
Krause said he uses his fireplace in the winter to help keep his heating bills down, but even with that wood heat his bill is still over $300 some months.
“I’m done ranting. Sorry. Sore subject for me,” Krause said.
Sleep Now In The Cold
Laurie Farkas, a spokesperson for Black Hills Energy, said the company is aware of customer concerns and has been working proactively to communicate with customers about high gas prices. This includes bill inserts, texts, media releases, winter energy usage on the Black Hills website and emails.
“We’re working hard to assist customers and also to our natural gas customers statewide,” Farkas said.
An email to Cheyenne customers explains that natural gas costs, which have tripled in some cases, and high demands are the primary factors behind the high utility bills. There are no new charges to bills, the email states.
It also explains what the delivery charge is that many people online were questioning. The fee is what it costs to bring natural gas to an address. It covers the cost of pipelines, technology and equipment. It includes a charge for the volume of gas used.
The email also encourages customers to, in the company’s words, buy less of what they sell. Using conservation tips, energy audits, budget billing and payment assistance programs, people might reduce some of their energy costs.
Not everyone has gotten the company’s messages.
“Anybody else get the sorry, not sorry email from BLACK HILLS ENERGY??!!” wrote Cheyenne resident Amanda Paige in the Facebook group.