Representatives at the Athens Utility Board have been taking a lot of calls lately from customers feeling the bite of last month's cold snaps. They got their bills last week and thought they had done everything possible to keep costs down. These were some of their reactions.

"I can't believe it's this high. I've kept my thermostat on 68 or 69. We've not been home," recalls Communications Specialist Erica Peden.

Some bills were $500 or more. Peden says extremely high bills are because of increased usage across McMinn County, not because of rate hikes. It's illegal for the company to raise rates suddenly based on the weather forecast.

"Unfortunately, when it's really cold like it was in January with two cold snaps, your heater's going to keep running, your unit's going to keep running, your meter's going to keep running and we'll read that for your bill," explains Peden.

Usage was three to four times more than normal. In order to meet the high demand the company did purchases additional power from TVA, but rates have been the same since November.

In Athens, temperatures never got above freezing during the first week of January, with lows around ten degrees. This was followed by another week-long stretch of frigid weather beginning mid-month. Both cold snaps ended up in many customers' billing cycles.

Six meter readers are responsible for 30,000 meters every month. They're read in staggered cycles. Meter readers had been noticing the unusually high numbers and brought them to the attention of management.

"Meter readers went back out to those specific addresses to make sure the meter was read correctly, and in fact they were all read correctly," adds Peden.

For those people who qualify for assistance, the utility board can split your bill which gives you more time to pay it off. They also partner with local programs like Coordinated Charities and SETHRA to offer help.

"It's important for customer to know the doors are open. We're here to listen," says Peden.