Residents urge regulators to reject Eversource fee hike

New London — Residents from throughout the region on Tuesday argued a distribution fee hike proposed by Eversource Energy could force cash-strapped locals and companies to flee the state.

The potential fee increase could see electricity bills for average ratepayers using 700 kilowatts per hour jump by about $6 per month beginning in May, according to the Office of Consumer Counsel, an independent consumer advocacy group.

Eversource says the fee bump would help reduce the frequency and duration of outages, covering investments in equipment, stronger utility poles and overhead lines, technology to combat cybersecurity threats and continued tree trimming. OCC and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said in January that they verified almost $700 million in recent Eversource investments to improve reliability and safety, stating "some level of rate increase is necessary."

But most speakers at New London City Hall on Tuesday urged regulators to reject Eversource's request.

"Connecticut already has the highest rates in the continental U.S.," Joe Ciaudelli of Montville told PURA Chairwoman Katie Dykes. "Many businesses have left the state for this reason."

Stonington resident Dzoan Tran said his Meriden company, Accel International, requires a substantial amount of power to make copper alloys for aerospace, medical and other industries. He said it's likely his company will move to another state if electricity rates continue to rise. Energy costs, he said, are higher than the company's labor costs.

"There's no way we can stay here and do business" if distribution fees are increased, Tran said.

Other residents complained about Eversource's reliability and the company's overall strong profits at a time when corporations are soon to benefit from sharp tax cuts.

Eversource spokesman Mitch Gross said the company understands customers' concerns. He also noted the company has said it believes "our customers should share in the reduction in federal tax rates. The final numbers are all part of this (review) by PURA."

Asked to respond to complaints about outages and service, Gross said "next to safety, (reliability) is at the top of the list for us."

"We are constantly working on making the system more reliable," he said. "A lot of work has been done, (including) tree trimming and pole replacements. That's what this rate adjustment is about, to allow us to continue to make upgrades. It's all about a strong, resilient system that can withstand storms and high demand."

Eversource initially requested a higher increase in November, but the proposal was cut in half when the company reached a settlement with the OCC and PURA last month.

Two of the 10 locals speaking Tuesday said they were not opposed to the proposed fee increase.

Tony Sheridan of Waterford said residents bank on a reliable supply of electricity, and he gave Eversource credit for working with homeowners and businesses.

"I don't want to pay more than I need to for electricity, but there's no free lunch," Sheridan said.

Frank Francisconi of New London said while he wasn't opposed to the potential increase, he was adamant that PURA only should issue a conditional approval ensuring Eversource demonstrates precisely how the added revenues are spent and that they "resulted in measurable, tangible" benefits to consumers.

Dykes, who listened to comments and took notes along with PURA representatives, said she appreciates the feedback.

"This is why we do these, to hear from people that will be directly impacted by the rate application," Dykes said.

Gross noted recently that Eversource made several concessions in the settlement, including reduced return for shareholders and reduced requests for reimbursements of employee benefits.

The settlement reduced the proposed fee increase from $336.9 million to $154.5 million over the next three years.

Part of PURA's review includes an Eversource proposal to reduce a separate distribution "customer service charge," which currently stands at $19.25 monthly, to $11.88.

Lauren Bidra and Richard Sobolewski of the OCC said with the customer service charge reduction and the settlement, the total bill for an average Eversource customer using 700 kilowatts per hour would be about $169 monthly, compared to the current average of $163.

The fee increase will go into effect May 1 if approved by PURA.

Customers also can submit comments to PURA in writing by Feb. 23 at 10 Franklin Square, New Britain, CT 06051, or pura.executivesecretary@ct.gov. Any written comments should refer to Docket 17-10-46.

b.kail@theday.com

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