West Penn Power rate increase request met with opposition

August 11, 2016
Lauren Burge, an attorney in the state Office of Consumer Advocate, speaks during Thursday’s state Public Utility Commission hearing on West Penn Power’s request for a rate increase. - Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Implementing an LED program was an illuminating energy prospect for South Fayette Township.

“The great allure was that we anticipated large savings of 30 to 50 percent,” township manager Ryan Eggleston said Thursday afternoon. “With a rate increase, LED doesn’t have the same savings appeal as it did before.”

Eggleston was one of four people who testified at a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission hearing to solicit public reaction to four FirstEnergy Corp. subsidiaries seeking rate increases in 2017. The hearing unfolded at the DoubleTree Inn in North Strabane Township.

Testimony gathered at seven statewide hearings will be considered before a decision on the rate requests is made, probably early next year. Administrative Law Judge Mary D. Long, who presided over the local proceeding, will make a recommended decision in November, then the PUC will have until Jan. 27 to render a final decision.

West Penn Power, the subsidiary that serves Southwestern Pennsylvania – including all of Washington and Greene counties, is requesting a $98.2 million increase, 5.7 percent above its current rates. If that occurs, the monthly bill for an average residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours per month would rise from $112.99 to $123.88 – 9.6 percent.

Addressing an audience of 12, including three PUC representatives, Long advised speakers they could testify under oath or off the record. Those under oath were subject to cross-examination from three attorneys – Tori Giesler of FirstEnergy, Gina Lauffer of the PUC and Lauren Burge of the state Office of Consumer Advocate.

Dianna Brozich of eastern Greene County approached the podium first. She is retired and said she has trouble comprehending some energy-related matters close to home.

“I can’t understand why they had to close Hatfield’s (Ferry) after they put so much money into it,” she said. Brozich was referring to the October 2013 shuttering of the coal-fired power plant where Allegheny Power, predecessor to FirstEnergy, had spent $650 million to install scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide and mercury from emissions.

Brozich also asked, “If (natural) gas is cheap, why are rates going up?”

“So many people in our area are on fixed incomes. There are no jobs there. Ten, 15, 20 dollars mean a lot to people on fixed incomes.”

Eggleston spoke second. Stressing several times that South Fayette has a “great working relationship with West Penn Power,” he said the township nevertheless would like the company “to either reduce or mitigate the increase (over subsequent years).”

“This could be roughly a $30,000 increase in the next fiscal year. That is a police cruiser, playground equipment.”

He said a January decision on the increase poses problems for local municipalities, many of which establish budgets in November for the upcoming year. Not knowing the final outcome, he said, can play havoc with budget planning.

Eggleston was followed by another municipal official, Garry Armstrong. He is the mayor of West Middletown, and said the benefits his borough reaped initially by switching to LED lighting may disappear.

“When I first saw the rate increase (request), my first thought was bait and switch,” said Armstrong, a retiree. “We were enticed to switch to LED, and the savings at first were great. Now, with an increase, our savings will diminish greatly. We’ll lose money in the long run.”

Patricia Brozich, Dianna’s sister-in-law from Crucible, said, “I’m very upset about this. I do everything I can to conserve energy. I hang clothes on the line. I just don’t know how you can make it (if there is an increase).”

AARP Pennsylvania also spoke against West Penn Power’s request.

“It’s poor public policy,” said Ray Landis, advocacy director of the organization. “Raising the fixed monthly charge creates a disincentive for conservation and takes away a consumer’s ability to control their costs through usage.”

This was the fifth PUC hearing. No. 6 was scheduled for last night in Greensburg, and the seventh will be next Thursday in East Stroudsburg.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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