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Power utilities weakened by fewer customers
Georgia Power offers worker buyouts while Jackson EMC freezes hiring
Joan Shadburn, a Jackson Electric Membership Corp. customer service representative, helps a client pay a bill Wednesday using the drive-through service at the utility’s Dawsonville Highway office. Jackson EMC will be cutting back by freezing some employee positions. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

For years, Jackson Electric Membership Corp. enjoyed steady growth in both residential and commercial customers.

In 2008, the number of customers at the beginning and end of the year were nearly the same.

Without new customers to expand its base, Jackson EMC began tightening its belt.

"We’re in the same boat our members are in," said Bonnie Jones, a Jackson EMC spokeswoman. "When the economy turns down, we have to start taking a hard look at where we are spending our money."

Jones said the member-owned utility has a hiring freeze and has cut employee travel in cost-cutting moves.

Jackson provides service to 204,550 meters in a 10-county area, making it the largest EMC in Georgia and one of the largest in the U.S.

The service area, which includes the high-growth areas of Hall, Jackson and Gwinnett counties, was the center of a residential explosion for two decades.

Gone, for now, is the demand for construction of new power lines into subdivisions. Jones said some of the homes it once served have gone into foreclosure and the power has been disconnected. Some builders and developers have also turned off power at homes that were previously on the market.

Randall Pugh, Jackson EMC’s president and chief executive officer, sent a open letter to the utility’s customers with their February bills assuring them that service would not be compromised.

"We’d much rather control our budgets and reduce where we can rather than pass the costs on to you with higher rates," wrote Pugh. "We’re doing everything possible to avoid rate increases in spite of escalating wholesale power costs and natural gas prices in our industry."

The economic downturn has also been felt at the state’s largest public utility, Georgia Power Co. Employees with more than 10 years of service were offered an opportunity in January to participate in a voluntary attrition program. The company offered one year’s pay as an incentive. About 700 of the company’s 9,000 workers have accepted the offer.

"We are seeing a reduction in workload because of the economic downturn and projections indicate that trend will continue in 2009," said Konswello Monroe, a company spokeswoman in Atlanta.

She said that near the end of 2008, stricter hiring guidelines were instituted to reduce the number of new employees.