Citizens are holding their own public hearing today on the ongoing problems with Potomac Edison’s business practices. The need for a hearing is hard to miss. Everywhere you go, people are complaining about their electric bills.
It’s not that the bills are too high – though they are – it’s that because Potomac Edison has been cutting corners on reading meters. Folks have had three, four, even five months in a row of estimates; then, when a meter reader finally does show up and gets an actual reading, the next bill may be hundreds of dollars higher than usual.
Potomac Edison’s own estimates were low, you see, and the company demands all the payment all at once to get your account current. Never mind that it’s the company’s own fault because it hasn’t met its requirement to read meters at least every other month; you owe the money and they want it NOW.
The Eastern Panhandle isn’t alone in this trouble. West Virginians served by Mon Power – which is owned by FirstEnergy Corp., also the owner of Potomac Edison – are having the same problems. In Maryland, customers served by Potomac Edison filed a complaint last summer with that state’s Public Service Commission, over exactly the same issues. In April of this year, the Maryland Commission announced it was opening a formal case to examine the regulated utility’s billing practices.
But here in West Virginia, our own Public Service Commission has declined to get involved. Our commission has accepted Potomac Edison’s excuses – the weather was bad, meter readers had to be diverted to emergency repair work after the freak derecho, bills are higher because this past winter was 25 percent colder than last year’s, the company has had problems transitioning to FirstEnergy’s billing system, the billing cycles had to be revised, and so on.
Adding insult to injury, FirstEnergy has applied to transfer – sell, in other words – the 40-year-old Harrison Power Station to Mon Power for a cool $1.1 billion, at least twice its actual value. This will raise utility rates by at least 6 percent at a time when electric rates have already gone up more than 30 percent since 2008, and put our bills at great risk of future increases. Even though when FirstEnergy acquired Allegheny Energy – which is what started this monumental foul-up with billing and meter-reading – the company promised the PSC that West Virginians wouldn’t pay for the cost of the merger (the reason for the incredibly inflated price). And the transfer is unnecessary – FirstEnergy should be requesting proposals for affordable power generation and energy efficiency programs, practices they follow in other states (and that help lower customers’ bills). In other words, so far the PSC is listening to corporate interests, not to citizens.
So the Jefferson County NAACP, the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and the Coalition for Reliable Power, a grassroots citizens’ alliance, decided to host our own “public hearing,” to give Eastern Panhandle residents a chance to speak to county and state officials.
All the members of the Eastern Panhandle’s state legislative delegation have been invited. The commissioners for Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties have been invited. The members of the Public Service Commission have been invited. Representatives of Potomac Edison have been invited.
People will be asked to sign up to speak, and they will only have a couple of minutes to describe their problems. We will have cards and petitions they can sign to protest FirstEnergy’s application for a sweetheart deal on the Harrison plant. If possible, bring a copy of your last utility bill. If you don’t want to speak but would like to submit written comments, we will accept them.
We will be distributing a survey on billing and meter-reading problems, to gather statistical data. We plan to record the event. We will submit all of this to the PSC and ask for an investigation.
And we will show the business-as-usual crowd that citizens can organize themselves and speak with one voice.
— Patience Wait writes
from Jefferson County