EWEB Raises Electricity, Water Ratesby Jeff Wright
The Register-Guard, March 22, 2006
It's no joke: EWEB customers will see an increase in their water and electricity rates effective April Fool's Day. The utility's five commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the increases, which will appear on customers' bills beginning in May.
The electric rate will climb an average of 5.8 percent for all users, and an average of 7.4 percent for residential customers. The typical residential user, using 1,050 kilowatt-hours per month, will see nearly a $6 per month increase, to $83.50.
The water rate will climb 9.3 percent - though only 7.7 percent for residential customers living inside the city. For the typical residential customer who uses about 9,000 gallons of water a month, that amounts to an increase of $1.10 to $15.23.
Customers will see a small increase even before a single kilowatt or gallon is consumed: That's because the basic rate jumps 50 cents a month for electricity and 50 cents for water - from $6 to $6.50.
The new electric rate for residential customers places EWEB sixth, but virtually tied for fourth, among 15 comparable utilities in the Northwest. The water rate remains the second-lowest among 12 comparable utilities.
Before their vote, commissioners heard from four customers who questioned the need for the increases and said they are a real hardship.
Debra DePew said she and her family moved into a duplex with ceiling heat five years ago, and have done everything they can think of - including insulation and low-energy light bulbs - to reduce their electric bill.
"There's nothing more I can do to make that duplex more energy-efficient," DePew said. "But if we can't pay it, I can't switch electric companies. It gets to be too much for families that are trying to make ends meet."
DePew's husband, Kenneth, urged commissioners to be more vocal in protesting rate increases passed down from the federal Bonneville Power Administration. At Commissioner Patrick Lanning's urging, the board decided to write a new letter to the BPA urging a reduction in rates charged to public utilities.
Past BPA increases "are still rippling, still impacting, and again affecting low-income people the most," Lanning said. Utility officials gave different reasons for the electricity increase vs. the water increase. More than half of the electricity increase, expected to generate $8.1 million, is tied to higher debt payments on loans for EWEB facilities. Much of the utility's debt was restructured in 2001 when the BPA's wholesale rates jumped dramatically.
The higher electric rate also will provide more money to buy renewable electricity, which is generated from sources that can continually make - or renew - the supply. The utility may pay more for this type of electricity than it can charge in selling it, but has said it is philosophically dedicated to encouraging the use of renewable energy.
Commissioner John Simpson said customers who opt to have 100 percent of their electricity provided through wind power are exempt from the increased consumption charge. "It's the way to go if you care about the environment," he said.
Ironically, the water rate has increased in large part because conservation-oriented customers are using less water than what the utility had forecast. The water rate hike is also intended to cover increased operational costs and increases in employee salaries and benefits.
EWEB commissioners last year approved two decreases in electrical rates. As a result, the net increase in electrical rates since November 2004 is actually only 3.9 percent, officials said.
Earlier in their meeting, commissioners heard that 80 percent of customers polled in an annual survey - the highest percentage ever - rated the utility's overall performance as good or excellent.
Performance ratings improved from a year ago in nine of nine categories. The poorest showing was in the utility's efforts to control costs, with 45 percent rating EWEB as good or excellent. That was a marked increase over the previous year, however, when 25 percent of surveyed customers gave a top rating.
Commissioner Ron Farmer said Tuesday that he was surprised that the latest rating wasn't higher, considering the two rate reductions last year. Farmer said he is concerned about EWEB bumping up too high on the list of comparable utilities' electric rates.
"I don't want to wake up and find we're at the the top some day," he said. "If we're not disciplined, that could happen."
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