YAKIMA - Washington Utilities and Transportation Commissioner Patrick Oshe and Dennis Moss, presiding judge over a public hearing held Tuesday night at the Yakima County Courthouse, gathered public comment on a proposed PacifiCorp rate increase.
The three-person utilities and transportation commission is taking public input from PacifiCorp customers in Eastern Washington on their reasons why the company should or should not be allowed to raise rates. The company is proposing a 13.5 percent, or $26.7 million dollar a year, increase to customers, according to Moss. The rate increase would be used to cover increasing costs to serve customers in Washington and across the company's six-state service area. If approved, a typical customer would likely see a $7.45 a month increase in power costs. The proposed rate increase was filed last December.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission staff and PacifiCorp agreed to a settlement of a $15.5 million annual revenue increase on Aug. 24, 2004. If the commissioners approve that agreement, a normal household would see a $4.61 monthly rise in their electric bills.
Moss explained that the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities and the Public Council division of the Attorney General's office do not agree with the proposed settlement.
Other groups oppose the rate increase since PacifiCorp filed a general rate increase in 1999, seeking $25.8 million in increases. In the settlement reached in 2000, all parties agreed to a five-year plan for the rate increases, which were supposed to be followed by two years with no increases, according to the Citizens Utility Alliance. In December 2003, PacifiCorp came back with another rate increase.
Robert Cromwell of the Attorney General's public council division said that PacifiCorp broke the five-year rate plan when it came back with another rate increase. At the public hearing he said it is the public council's position that the rates be reverted back to the 2000 rate plan.
Maury Manyoky and Carol Fulsom-Hill both spoke against rate increases on behalf of non-profits, who serve the poor and homeless in the Yakima area.
Manyoky said that Yakima County is one of the poorest in the state and much of the housing is very poor quality.
He said his group, the Yakima County Coalition for the Homeless, helps 3,000-4,000 individuals and families each year who aren't able to afford basic needs.
Most of the families, he said, earn between $349 and $600 a month.
Manyoky said that his organization helps families who aren't able to pay their bills, especially the electric bill.
Hill said that her organization, the Yakima Interfaith Coalition, also provides needy families with services.
She said the average electric bill they help with is $29, but there are also bills that are $100, $200 and $350 their office sees.
"There are elderly who call us and choose to pay their power bill over buying prescriptions," said Hill. "Rent is very high and there is not a lot of disposable income."
Last year, Hill added, her organization had a budget of $103,000 and $16,000 was paid out in direct services, such as paying electric bills.
Sunnyside resident Lucian Pace also testified at Tuesday's hearing, saying that many in the Yakima Valley who depend on agriculture will be affected by rate increases.
"A lot of people have to pump water and therefore their electricity (bill) would be through the roof," said Pace.
Pace added that many of the elderly in the Lower Valley are on fixed incomes and will not be able to afford a rate increase.
"Increases in electricity will not only affect their homes, it will affect their livelihood," said Pace. "I would like to see it stabilized, not a big increase."
PacifiCorp customer Rich Rowland of Yakima said as a private homeowner he has seen a number of rate increases over the years.
"Sometimes it's kind of hard to swallow (the electric bill) in the winter months," he added.
He said that he believes when a company files a rate increase they should have to abide by it for a few years.
Company stockholder Curtis Strausz of Cowiche said he feels he has not received enough information on the subject, but he said, "like everyone else here speaking against the rate increase I am not enamored with higher rates."
Also speaking out against higher rates was Chris Linschooten of Yakima. He said there should be no rate increase until 2006. Linschooten read into the record a portion of a Bonneville Power Administration newsletter, which detailed how the BPA was able to reduce costs by selling equipment that isn't being used and finding other ways to cut costs.
"I wonder if this company (PacifiCorp) here is doing any of this?" questioned Linschooten. "Who is checking their costs? Are their costs real or hyped up?"
A retired mechanical engineer who built airplanes, ships and also worked for Hanford, Linschooten said he doesn't remember getting a 7.5 percent pay raise.
"The electricity rates are really high for us," he added.
Yakima resident Alfred Carlson also spoke out against the rate increase. He said that the area is teetering on economic disaster and many are living on very low, fixed incomes.
"It does not look to me that the rate increase benefits the user, but rather the share holder who will get a better than 8 percent return on their investment.
"I encourage the company to tighten its belts like everyone else," added Carlson.
Bill Douglas of Selah, who sits on the PacifiCorp advisory board for the Yakima area, feels the company has been doing a great job of providing service to the Northwest. He said that customers haven't had to worry about blackouts, like California did following the Enron scandal.
He said that if the commission feels PacifiCorp should be allowed the increase or the settlement it would not be too much.
Douglas said rate increases have not kept up with inflation.
At the end of public testimony the hearing was continued so that additional information can be gathered in other hearings. A decision regarding the proposed settlement and rate increase is expected to be decided in early November.
. Melissa Dekker can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org