FRILLS CORNERS - Penelec has substantially lowered the amount of money it says North Clarion School District owes for incorrect billing and metering by Penelec itself.

Last month, Penelec officials indicated the district owes more than $200,000 for power its used over the past ten years but for which it did not fully pay.

Penelec, both in discussion with the school board and in calls to the CLARION NEWS, has since indicated it never meant to imply it expects the district to pay the more than $200,000.

Penelec indicated at the school board's Jan. 6 work session the power company will now settle for approximately $69,000.

North Clarion School District Superintendent Steve Young told the board Dec. 5, 2019, Penelec had sent notice the district had been undercharged by more than $200,000 for electric service during the past ten years.

Although it was initially thought to be the case, Penelec representative Chuck Evanoff told the North Clarion Board Jan. 6 the company would not be seeking the full amount in undercharged bills.

Evanoff went on to explain what had occurred resulting in North Clarion being undercharged by such a large amount.

According to Evanoff, the issue at the high school began Sept. 16, 2018. A "trouble call" that night led to linemen coming to the school to fix a transformer.

During the process, the linemen had mistakenly hung a current transformer backwards, which helped to keep voltage from being read properly.

The issue was resolved on Aug. 5, 2019, but Evanoff has said during that time the district was billed $6,494, instead of $38,220. Penelec used the previous year's usage to determine a true amount that should have been billed.

At the elementary school, a meter installed March 31, 2009, had been wired incorrectly and was not fixed until this past June.

"Basically that's 10 years of costs that we didn't accumulate," said Evanoff. "Now, Pennsylvania code regulations lets us bill back four years. In good faith and because we know we screwed up, we only want to go back two years."

When discussing the matter last month, Young pointed out the district had contacted Penelec about what the district perceived as lower-than-normal bills.

Starting on June 13 when the elementary meter was fixed until recently, Penelec used the school's corrected billing to determine an average usage. Then, the average was spread over the remainder of two years.

According to Evanoff, the district should have been billed $41,859 in a two-year period, instead of the $4,636 it had paid.

"So what you will owe minus the $4,636 is $37,223," said Evanoff.

The high school would also conceivably owe roughly $31,625

"I can't begin to tell you how crazy this is to have basically the same two problems on two different accounts here," said Evanoff. "This is not how we do business. This is like lightning striking somebody."

Evanoff explained because of what happened, corrective actions have been put in place to avoid similar mishaps in the future, such as new training for linemen.

Board member Matthew Higgins said he was concerned about how the district could go about paying what is owed.

"We don't have reserve funds for emergency electric bills," said Higgins. "I don't know how we can just pull that out of the budget. It wasn't our mistake and we can't go get it in the past from the taxpayers."

Higgins continued, "I'm just saying we've got this bill and then we're going to have a higher electric bill now because of the usage and so forth. It's a double hit."

Evanoff explained a payment plan in the case of the high school would involve 12 total installments of $2,635 (one payment per month). The elementary plan is similar, requesting $1,550 per month for 24 months.

Those payments are separate from each school's regular bills to be paid.

"We'll have to take that from students," said board member James Shaftic. "That's the truth. That money is going to have to come from somewhere and it's going to come from the school."

Shaftic added another option would be to file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission. Evanoff concurred the board could do that.

A decision on how the owed fees would be addressed was not made, but Penelec reps have said both parties are in steady communication with each other.

Equipment at both schools is now properly fitted, according to officials.

"They took special care and pains to do so in this case because it is such a rare incident," said Penelec representative Rick Brown. "It was a learning experience for us and unfortunately, it happened how it happened."

Brown continued, "We want to help you work through this, we realize you guys are billing taxpayer money and you have an obligation to do the best you can for your students and staff."

The Jan. 6 meeting was a "work session" during which no formal action could be taken.n