Some Berkeley Electric customers' bills get rounded up, but money goes to good causes

Berkeley Electric Cooperative (WCIV).jpg

Berkeley Electric Cooperative customers, you may want to check your bills and count your pennies. The power provider may be rounding up your bill total each month.

It's part of a program customers are automatically opting into when they sign up for service, but may not realize they're doing so if they skim through the fine print.

We first heard about the “Operation Round Up” from a Facebook post, when someone noticed the charge on their bill and wanted to know where the money was going.

It’s in clear black and white on your application for service, a line item stating anyone who powers up their home through Berkeley Electric Cooperative will be “opted in” to “Operation Round Up.”

Each month, customers bills are rounded up anywhere from a penny to 99 cents. It's never more than a dollar, Berkeley Electric says.

The program is completely voluntary, however, and Berkeley Electric Cooperative customers can opt out at any time.

But before you call and pull the plug, our investigation discovered that your spare change is providing a positive change in communities across Berkeley County.

"It’s never over a dollar," Berkeley Electric Cooperative Director of Communications Leisa Stilley said.

On average, customers in the "Round Up" program end up donating approximately $6 a year, equaling about $408,000 a year from all customers, and totaling $7.6 million since the program began in 1992.

That money is then put into a trust, from which funds are taken to put back into the surrounding communities for those in need, according to Stilley.

"We do a lot of roof repair, plumbing repair, AC repair, Stilley said. “We get a lot of applications in the winter and summer when it comes to heating and cooling your home.”

Donations are also made to area non-profits like Meals on Wheels and Trident Area Agency on Aging.

Berkeley Electric customers may also qualify for assistance through the Berkeley co-op's Round Up program.

"The application is sent to our board trust," Stilley said. "They review it, we pay a personal visit to the home. They bring it back, they make a recommendation to the board. They review it and the board determines if it’s something they can support."

That nine-member board is made up entirely of member owners who volunteer their time. All administrative costs for the Round Up program are covered by Berkeley Electric Cooperative.

Stilley says all money from Operation Round up is reviewed through an internal audit, and while names of those receiving assistance will be kept private, the books are open for review any time.

"It’s a great feeling for our members because its all about taking care of each other. It’s our focus its a commitment to our community," Stilley said.

Helping others is a point of pride for the co-op, but being “opted in” in the fine print — though clear to see on this application — is still for some a point of contention.

“It’s not something that I am opposed to if you make it more clearly known,"Tabitha Wilson said.

Wilson is a Berkeley Electric Cooperative member owner. She says signed up for service in person but was never told about Operation Round Up. She wished details of the program were more transparent so she could be sure the money being put into that trust was going to those in need.

“To just take it, in fine print, when you sign up for your electric, you aren't worried about fine print; you want electricity,” said Wilson.

Details of Operation Round Up are also available when signing up for service online, though Stilley admits many people still rush through the fine print doing it that way, as well.

Those applying online even must initial the line which discloses details of Operation Round Up, Stilley says.

Stilley says the co-op understands when some people want to leave the program. Still, she says Berkeley Electric hopes hopes potential customers will do their due diligence before signing up.

That way, if they don’t want to be involved and donate to Operation Round Up, they can opt out at any point with a simple phone call or email, Stilley says.

"If someone gets upset about it, we understand about being opted into something that they didn't want to participate in," Stilley said. “And we do get some of that. We don’t ask questions. We understand everyone has their own opinion and their reasons and we just remove it and go on from here."

Member owner Jamie Neeley, meanwhile, says he was happy to do his part.

He’s been with Berkeley Electric Cooperative for a few years and said he was well aware of Operation Round Up by reading the stipulations and agreement of service when he signed up.

“Yeah I was okay with it," Neely said. "It is just 6 bucks a year, That’s a cup of coffee or dinner over at Zaxby’s. And people that don’t have something can have something."

The process is legal, co-op officials say. Over 900 other electric co-op's around the country, including all Touchtone Electric Cooperatives, have similar programs in place.

So how do you know if you are opted in? Just find your bill, and look for the Operation Round Up amount. It will be itemized in your current charges.

Another failsafe is to check you December bill. That will list the total round up contribution you've paid for the year.

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