MEC customers' feelings mixed about 'Operation Pocket Change'

By Julie Fann
Star Staff

Customers of Mountain Electric Cooperative who live in the Roan Mountain area have mixed feelings about "Operation Pocket Change," a new program that will round up to the next dollar on every residential customer's monthly electric bill and, according to MEC, distribute the extra money to local charities. The program will begin in June.
   "I'm not a big fan of it, just because we work hard for our money, and we can't afford any extra. I don't like it at all. I wonder how these people (who will receive the money) would feel if we weren't paying our bills," said Christy Oakes, MEC customer.
   The MEC board approved "Operation Pocket Change" last spring, 2001. The decision was then unanimously approved by MEC customers, called members, at the cooperative's annual meeting in September. However, only approximately 300 of MEC's 30,000 customers attended the meeting.
   According to MEC manager Joe Thacker, money for "Operation Pocket Change" will go into a separate fund managed by an independent board other than the MEC board whose eight members are elected by MEC customers. Each board member will represent one of the eight districts served by MEC. "We also have by-laws that dictate how the money can be used so that it won't be used to pay our bills. There are limits. Twenty percent will go toward scholarships," Thacker said.
   Thacker said the independent board won't receive applications from interested local charities and civic clubs until around the end of June, and the board won't decide who will receive the funds generated by the program until July or August. One Roan Mountain customer, who wished to remain anonymous, was disgruntled over the lack of choice involved.
   "I'd like to know what charities they will be giving to, and I don't agree with being automatically signed up for it (the program). It should be a choice whether you want to (participate) or not."
   Mountain Electric Cooperative serves 30,000 customers mainly in Johnson County, Tenn., and Avery County, N.C., and the surrounding area. Thacker said that 1,000 to 2,000 customers have requested they be exempt from donating to "Operation Pocket Change."
   "Customers who don't want to participate in the program, all they have to do is make a simple phone call to our office, and we will remove their name from the list," Thacker said.
   Charities and organizations that may end up receiving funds from "Operation Pocket Change" are non-profit and may represent a wide range of needs and interests, according to Thacker. "Interested parties that need donations could be an organization, a situation where a family's house burned down, youth programs, community food pantries, worthy projects and service organizations," he said.
   Thacker said he expects about an 80 percent participation rate for "Operation Pocket Change." He explained that an average of $6 per year will be donated by each resident who participates. The highest amount per month that a household could give would be $.99 cents. "So, close to $12 a year would be the highest donation," Thacker said.
   MEC has notified customers of "Operation Pocket Change" through press releases, articles in its monthly magazine, and inserts included in residential electric bills, however, some customers contacted by the Elizabethton Star weren't aware of the program.