A Northwest Georgia electric cooperative has made a change to keep more of its customers' change for charity -- and not everyone's happy about it.
The North Georgia Electric Membership Corp. decided to "opt in" all of its 98,000 customers to Operation Round Up, a program that rounds bills up to the next highest dollar amount.
For example, a monthly bill of $70.01 is rounded up to $71, with 99 cents going to the program that makes donations to community nonprofit organizations in the seven counties the cooperative serves.
Participation in Operation Round Up has soared from a little less than 3 percent when customers had to choose to take part to 76 percent now that it's automatic, electric cooperative spokeswoman Laura Sparks said. The pennies add up: The electric cooperative expects revenue will grow 25-fold to $30,000 monthly up from the previous $1,200 a month, after all the customers who are going to opt out do so.
The automatic opt in, which began in March, took some of the cooperative's customers by surprise -- and ticked them off.
"There are thousands of people who struggle to make ends meet each month, and many of them are not going to scrutinize their electric bill's fine print to see they are now being 'taxed' by NGEMC," said Peter J. Cutt, president of IMACC Corp., a Dalton business that reconditions and recycles industrial containers.
"While some people -- like me -- might catch this slick little change and immediately opt out, I have no doubt that there are many people who will have no idea that they are now contributing."
Sparks said customers can opt out with a phone call or by getting on the cooperative's website. About 24 percent have opted out since March, she said. The cooperative will refund customers' money, Sparks said.
The most any customer will pay toward the program is $11.88, annually, Sparks said, based on a bill being rounded up by 99 cents each month. The average customer will pay about $6, she said.
"We tried to give people plenty of notice," Sparks said of the change, including putting notices in customers' January and February bills and in March's newsletter.
She said the cooperative's board voted in December to automatically opt everyone into the program, after seeing that's how a lot of other electric cooperatives in the region did it.
"We feel strongly as a cooperative that that's a big part of our mission, that we are part of the community, that we give back to the community," Sparks said.
She said the money from Operation Round Up, which was launched in 2007, stays in the counties the cooperative covers: all of Catoosa, Walker and Whitfield and parts of Chattooga, Floyd, Gordon, and Murray. Funds have gone to programs that support literacy, provide children's vision screening and support the Special Olympics, she said.
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Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.