|by Mari Winn Taylor
The proposed rate hike by the Springfield City Utilities (CU) was the hot topic at the Springfield City Council meeting on August 26, 2013. Pitted against nearly half dozen spokespersons for the monopoly utility company were a handful of ardent citizens whose vested interest is common to many folks, especially those that often fall between the cracks, wondering where the money will come from to pay for the 13.5 percent increase for the use of electricity over a three year period.
Saying that the decision to impose the rate hikes "had not come lightly," Mike Peters, chairman of the Springfield Board of Utilities, cited the need to maintain "physical security" as the reason for the request to increase revenue. His conclusion was that even with the increase, CU's rates will "remain the lowest in the country."
Scott Miller, CU general manager, said that the size of the utility had an influence on increasing costs, that it didn't have the economic advantage that other utilities have. "We really work hard to drive down costs, Miller claimed.
Other arguments presented by CU officials, who later were labeled as "suits earning six-figure incomes" by a disgruntled audience member, included meeting costs associated with environmental compliance and use of more expensive fuel.
"My first time attending a meeting of the Springfield Council, I was taken by the show of security deemed no longer necessary by the city of Joplin. After successfully passing through a metal detector behind a gentleman who had to remove his belt, I saw that the Springfield Police Department assigned officers to line the wall on one side of the council chambers. Somehow I felt unnecessarily intimidated and definitely missed the cheery greeting I used to get from Lane Roberts, Joplin's chief of police."--Mari Winn
Initiating the voice of opposition, which unfortunately may ultimately be a whimper in the wilderness, were two physically challenged individuals who admitted to totally understanding the circumstances for the rate hike but questioned what they were getting in return from a monopoly that without competition like Walmart, HyVee and others, could operate without regard to maintaining affordability for its customers.
As an aside, the toughness of these individuals was seen after the meeting when with the assistance of a guide dog they negotiated the steep steps of the municipal building annex rather than discovering the location of the building's ramp.
Pearl Walker, a diminutive gray-haired senior citizen's apparent intent was to lay guilt on the council for not addressing the affordability issue. She suggested that rates should be commensurate with income and that her income was lower than the national average. Her suggestion that many people living on the poverty level couldn't afford to pay more was answered. People should be put in touch with the assistance program. However, Donna Bergen, a member of the Power Supply Task Force, said that it was "callous to suggest that people can disconnect Cable and rid of their Smart phones" to find money to pay for the increase. She called attention to what she considered excesses in the company's budget like ignoring opportunities to decrease debt service and paying for a box at Hammon's Field for stakeholders. She questioned what "to improve reliability" means saying that all the "garbage" sent to her in the mail by CU was "disingenuous."
Several audience members took advantage of an opportunity to call attention to environmental and health issues caused by the operation of the James River Power Station on S. Kissick. The use of not so clean coal coupled with the increase in asthma cases near plant operations, and not attending to unsafe utility poles were among the issues mentioned.
Speaking on behalf of the local members of the Sierra Club was Lev Guter, an organizer for "Beyond Coal." While he had prepared talking points for why the James River Power Station was old and outdated, he alone took the podium to express this viewpoint.
Guter called attention to the vote on August 22, 2013, by Springfield City Utilities to earmark $53 billion for upgrades at the aging James River Power Station. His objections are to the millions he says will be spent keeping units 4 and 5 as coal-burning units. Overall, he describes the location as the "dirty James River coal plant in Springfield."
According to Guter, "Rather than investing in better energy infrastructure like transmission upgrades that could bring nearby world-class wind resources to Springfield, rate-payers are paying for a future locked into carbon-intense coal that poses not only an immediate rate spike and public health problems but risks costing even more in a carbon-constrained future." .
The council meeting was the second opportunity for citizens to raise objections to the rate hikes. The first opportunity came on August 8, 2013, when the CU Citizen's Advisory Council met.
The Council that calls itself a "cross-section of community leaders" (check the truth of that out here). Their role, according to CU, is to act as a representative for utility customers, encouraging participation in the utility’s decision-making process and bringing recommendations to the Board of Public Utilities so as "to better serve" CU's customers. On August 22, 2013, the board gave approval for both the 2014 operating budget for City Utilities with total expenditures of $554.8 million and also the series of rate increases if approved by the city council beginning in October 2014 and recurring in October 2015 and October 2016 of 5.9 percent, 3.9 percent and 3.7 percent respectively.
Final council vote will come in two weeks.