Unpaid electric bills mount for Corrections, other state agencies

The state, like many businesses and residents, is having trouble paying its electric bills — so much trouble, in fact, that it faces some $200,000 in late fees if the bills aren’t paid this month, according to the Don Hill, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services.

The state has nearly a $5 million shortfall in electric payments, with half of it owed by the general fund. The state Department of Corrections alone is about $1 million in the hole, accounting for about 40 percent of the general fund debt.

Hill recommends that the state take some of its budget surplus to deal with the problem.

“That has to be tapped,” said Hill. “We need the money to pay our bills. It’s not discretionary funding. It’s a fixed cost that has to be paid.”

Hill also recommended that the state Department of Corrections get its fiscal house in order, just like the state Department of Transportation did recently.

“It’s the major department I was concerned with,” he said. “The financial management in Corrections needs to be strengthened. It is growing rapidly, and its financial management has not kept up with that growth.”

Corrections Department spokesman Jeff Lyons agreed that the $3.2 million appropriated for this year will not cover the department’s electric bills. (Officials will be asking for $4.4 million in next year’s budget.) But Lyons referred questions to Hill about exactly how much of the department’s electric bill is past due and what penalties have been assessed so far.

“We are going to run short this year,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

Hill said he was trying to get the very same information from the Corrections Department, as well as other state agencies.

Lyons emphasized that utility bills are a problem throughout the state government, and Corrections shouldn’t be signaled out.

Rep. Fred King, R-Colebrook, a member of the House Finance Committee, agreed that many other state departments did not budget enough for energy, but many also have found money elsewhere in their budgets and came before the Legislative Fiscal Committee to transfer the funds.

The fiscal committee had already approved $1.6 million interdepartmental transfer for Corrections to take care of unexpectedly high health care costs, and “there is no place to go” to come up with more money for utility bills.

“Everybody is [having trouble paying their utility bills] but not to the extent that they [Corrections] are,” King said. “Corrections is at the bottom of the barrel.” – BOB SANDERS

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