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Electric Bills Jolt Military Families

Come Saturday, 6,400 military families in Hawaii will start to get electricity bills where there weren't any before, and although the change is intended to reduce consumption, not all are viewing the effort with holiday cheer.

The Navy and housing contractor Forest City Military Communities are testing the utility bills as a pilot program at Navy and Marine Corps housing in Hawaii. A similar test is under way at military housing at Beaufort/Parris Island in South Carolina.

For at least six years in Hawaii, Forest City has collected military members' housing allowances -- which are substantial -- as full payment for rent, utilities and all other costs under a public-private venture (PPV).

Now, military families will have to pay for electricity if their usage exceeds an established average for their neighborhood by more than 20 percent.

Navy Lt. Jason Anthes, 29, who has two children and lives in Pearl City Peninsula housing, said six families he talked to on his street consistently received mock bills of $50 to $150 in recent months leading up to the start of the live program. The bills were a way to familiarize residents with what is to come.

Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Andrew Lunn, 31, formally questioned the rationale for the change, known as the Resident Energy Conservation Program, before recently deploying to Iraq with the 25th Infantry Division.

"Servicemembers are already adequately compensating housing communities for the electrical costs incurred," Lunn said. "The only reasonable explanation is that the civilian corporations running military housing here in Hawaii are exploiting the spirit of the RECP as a vehicle to generate additional income at the expense of servicemembers."

Lunn's wife, Jennifer, said she skimped on Christmas lights this year on their Pearl City Peninsula home because of electricity cost worries.

"My husband is deployed and we can't even put up lights," she said. "Normally, we would put out double [the lights] at least, and it's like, ugh, take [the fun] out of the holiday season."

Historically, the Navy said, its residents have consumed more energy than military or civilian counterparts living outside military housing, and the new program is designed to set a "reasonable range" for energy consumption.

"These excess energy costs negatively impact PPV projects over the long term by reducing available capital which would ultimately be reinvested back into the PPV community, allowing improvements to the property such as renovations and community amenities," the Navy said on a website explaining the program -- http://www.greatlifehawaii.com/recp/.

The Navy said any energy cost "savings" would be deposited into a reserve account managed by the Navy and Forest City.

Agnes Tauyan, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Hawaii, said that according to the PPV director, the Navy does not yet have a projection for cost savings.

"This is a pilot program, so after the live billing phase the Navy will review the program and evaluate strategies for implementing the program across all PPV locations," Tauyan said.

Forest City Military Communities is renovating and rebuilding about half of the Navy and Marine Corps' 6,564 housing units in 36 neighborhoods on Oahu and Kauai, and it manages all of them.

Forest City said the Defense Department already has implemented resident utility billing through the Army and Air Force at many mainland housing projects.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 1996 allowed the Defense Department to work with the private sector to build, renovate and manage military housing.

Two years later, in conjunction with its housing partners, the Office of the Secretary of Defense created a policy for the resident payment of utilities in public-private venture housing to encourage energy efficiency, the Navy said.

Only now is the Navy utility payment being implemented, and in Hawaii it will be a one-year pilot program. The Navy said starting it now rather than years ago allowed for the initial development phase of most of the housing projects and installation of individual electric meters.

Forest City established "like-type" groups of homes within each neighborhood based on size, number of bedrooms and year built, the Navy said.

Forest City calculated a 20 percent buffer above and below the monthly user average. Electricity use above the 20 percent results in a bill. More than 20 percent below means a rebate.

The housing manager was not able to provide a breakdown of the dollar amount of rebates versus billing costs that were calculated during the mock billing period that ran for several months prior to the live start of the program Saturday.

Views about the resident electrical program are split.

Navy Chief Petty Officer William Conkle, 37, who works in the security department at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and also lives at Pearl City Peninsula, said he doesn't have a problem with the program.

"I think it's a good idea," he said. "At the end of the day, it saves the military money."

That money in turn can be put into quality-of-life issues, he said.

Conkle said he isn't sure how many are for or against the resident energy billing.

"I don't know. It's kind of hard to say," he said. "I've heard a lot of people complain, but then I've also heard a lot of people that don't really have a problem with it. Is there a possibility that you may have to pay out of pocket? Yes. But the way I'm looking at it is, they are giving you a [big] buffer zone."

Lunn, the Soldier deployed to Iraq, maintains civilian housing authorities already are "fleecing" higher-ranking servicemembers for housing. A second lieutenant or ensign with dependents pays $2,133 in rent for a military house while a Navy lieutenant or Army captain pays $2,739 for the same house, he said.

"My biggest issue is the fact that military housing authorities are attempting to force servicemembers to bear additional costs beyond their [housing allowance]," Lunn said.

Those Defense Department housing allowances are set for current market rate, average utilities and renters insurance, he said. Each month, Forest City will calculate a new average electricity use.

Forest City said the electrical usage calculated by the Pentagon is based on civilian homes, while the PPV homes tend to be bigger and have air-conditioning -- meaning more use.

The Lunns, with three children, said they were "way, way over" the 20 percent buffer at first.

"The struggle that I had with it is, I don't have any shade on my house and my air-conditioner constantly kicks on," Jennifer Lunn said.

They've set the thermostat higher and taken other steps, including reducing their Christmas lights.

Andrew Lunn said families with more kids and few supplied energy-efficient appliances will use more electricity, and they'll be penalized unfairly for it.

Forest City points to the built-in buffer for higher electricity use.

Anthes, who is a neighbor of the Lunns, said he can't put in solar panels or take other significant energy-saving steps in the military-run housing.

"They kind of tie your hands with your ability to conserve energy while charging you for it," he said. "It's kind of frustrating."

The Navy said Forest City will not allow residents to install their own ceiling fans, but the housing manager will consider installing more on its own.

Forest City is converting all older air-conditioning thermostats to newer models that limit the lowest possible setting to 72 degrees. The company said $185 was spent to install each house meter using Navy and borrowed money.

In question-and-answer information, the Navy said water bills are not included "at present" in the conservation effort.

"This program seems like a pay cut," is one of the topics addressed in the Q&A.

The Navy answer: "For those who choose to use electricity above the normal rate plus 20 percent, this may feel like a pay cut."

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