By Lizann Lightfoot
Since the 2012 roll-out of the Resident Energy Conservation Program in military base housing across the country, military families have been questioning the program’s accuracy. In theory, many families support the program’s goal of reducing on-base energy usage by 20 percent to save costs and help the planet. But in practice, the program has many flaws. Since 2015, military families at multiple bases have noticed billing errors with inaccurate meter readings, faulty wiring between connected homes, and higher costs per kilowatt than they would be charged off-base. (To read detailed testimonies of residents who were paying to run their neighbor’s house or public street lamps or who were charged high bills when their home was empty, see my research here.)
For years, families who reported energy billing problems have been caught between their base housing company–who are mostly private contractors — and the local energy supplier. Base housing blames billing errors on the energy company, while the energy company says meter issues must be fixed by the housing office. Meanwhile, military families are paying suspiciously high bills without any explanation. In some cases, families who refused to pay a high bill until it was investigated have been threatened with eviction letters from the housing office.
Recently, families have gained the attention of those with the power to change the RECP program.
Here’s what to do if you think your energy bills are too high:
Gather data in your neighborhood. The RECP uses baseline averages from “like-sized homes” to determine whether your home’s usage is above or below the average. Study your electric bill to see if there are unusual changes in your average. Compare your usage to off-base averages based on your square footage. Photograph your meter monthly, then compare that to the usage reported on your bill.
Our base residents recently started a Facebook group to discuss billing inconsistencies. Knowing that your neighbors in similar-sized homes use a certain amount of kWh makes a much more convincing argument to officials than “my bill seems high for some reason.”
Don’t be bullied. Know your rights and the local laws. The base housing office has used letters (example pictured below) to force residents to pay an outstanding electric bill within three days. However, this is not technically a legal eviction notice. In most states, residents cannot be evicted for 30-60 days. Evictions can be used to demand rent payment, but that is automatically deducted from service member BAH. Evictions cannot be used for utility bills. The Camp Pendleton Public Affairs Office notes that these letters are not officially eviction notices. Take the time to research your options and make another request to have your energy bill audited.
Contact the chain of command. Some service members hesitate to discuss energy bills with their chain of command, but command leadership wants service members to focus on work, not energy bills. Military leadership is on the side of families trying to solve these problems. Every family on our base who contacted their chain of command had a positive experience. On some bases, military leadership has escalated the problem all the way to Washington, D.C.
Discuss the issue with your FRG. Military units have an FRG (Army), Ombudsman (Navy), or FRO (Marines) who is the liaison between military families and military leadership. They can push the problem up the chain of command or to the commander of your base or post. Families don’t have direct contact with a general or an admiral, but it will take that level of leadership to hold private contractors accountable for wiring or billing problems.
Go to NCIS. The Naval Criminal Investigative Unit (NCIS) investigates crimes on Navy and Marine Corps bases. If military families are victims of an energy scam, NCIS is the first step towards a class-action lawsuit.NCIS is already investigating Lincoln Military Housing at Camp Pendleton. Find out of there is a pending lawsuit on your base.
Talk to influential spouses. Recently, the Military Family Advisory Network set up a meeting between military spouses and Ellyn Dunford, wife of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kristine Schellhaas, a military spouse, briefed Dunford about the RECP problems. Schellhaas pointed out that military families living on base were being charged more per kWh than they would if they lived off base. The difference could easily total a difference of $1,000 per family over a year. Schellhaas’s research results are available here.
Contact your representatives. Many senators and congressmen have military attachés answering their office phones. Those service members are sympathetic to problems on military bases. Our base families contacted Representative Darrell Issa. His office was concerned about the energy billing problems and set up a method for residents to report suspicious bills. Contact him at Issa.House.gov with “military base energy bills” in the subject line. Other representatives may have similar contact forms for their local military bases.
Military families should not feel trapped between housing and energy contractors. If you’re experiencing billing inflation and are fighting it, we want to hear from you! Email
Lizann Lightfoot an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .