The major reasons the rate increases are needed, according to EWEB, is lower income from selling power compared with the high cost of buying power by contract from Bonneville, wind farms, solar producers and cogeneration plants.
Ratepayer Rhonda Dimarco asked the Eugene Water & Electric Board on Tuesday to quit raising its rates.
Dimarco, a parts clerk at a lawn mower shop, said she was probably the lowest paid of among nearly 50 EWEB employees, 30 ratepayers and five EWEB commissioners who attended a public hearing on the utility’s proposed rate increases.
Dimarco said she has no health insurance and has had no pay increase in two years – and can’t afford the proposed 4 percent increase on electricity and 20 percent increase for water on her utility bill.
She told the commissioners that she saved for two weeks so she could afford Christmas lights – and lets her grass grow brown in the summer to avoid high water bills.
“I pay my bills, and I work my butt off. I don’t get any help,” she said.
Her and others’ testimony notwithstanding, the board voted unanimously to approve the water and electricity rate increases, and to approve the utility’s 2013 budget on which they’re based.
The average EWEB customer will pay about $8.75 a month more for power and water next year. The utility anticipates needing an additional increase in the fall of 2013.
Dimarco was one of about 10 people who testified against the rate increases. When someone voiced criticism about EWEB employees’ wages and benefits, about half of those in the room applauded.
But when others – a former and a future EWEB commissioner – defended the utility’s policies, including employee pay and benefits, it was EWEB workers who had lined the back of the room who applauded.
Former Commissioner Sandra Bishop testified that 75 to 80 percent of the utility’s costs are from purchasing electrical power, not employee wages and benefits.
The employees are the utility’s greatest asset, said Bishop, who added: “Don’t sacrifice your employees on the altar of public opinion.”
EWEB Commissioner-elect Steve Mital was critical of a Register-Guard article that appeared Sunday, contending that a chart that compared EWEB rate increases with those at the Springfield Utility Board and Emerald People’s Utility District was not an apples-to-apples comparison and thus misleading. The other utilities, he said, will see steep increases in the coming year as the Bonneville Power Administration raises its wholesale rates.
The major reasons the rate increases are needed, according to EWEB, is lower income from selling power compared with the high cost of buying power by contract from Bonneville, wind farms, solar producers and cogeneration plants. Additional cost drivers are reduced water sales, when the cost of delivering a gallon of water remains the same. The utility also faces steep bills to keep its retirement and retiree medical plans solvent.
The utility is seeking to curb its labor costs by canceling a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for its non-union employees, and by reducing its budget by a dollar amount equal to the 3 percent it is obligated, by contract, to give its unionized employees.
None of those facts were persuasive to ratepayers like Dick Beers, who criticized the amount of paid time off that EWEB employees receive.
“You’re taking the money out of the public, and where is it going? We need help, people. We’re broke,” he said.
Ratepayer Dick Russell said he watered his lawn last summer and it cost him $200 for his EWEB-provided water.
“What do we want, Eugene with brown grass everywhere?” he said. “I’m appalled to see these kinds of (rate) increases … when demand goes down, you want more; when demand goes up, you want more.”
Ratepayer Michael Townsend said he pays $10,000 out of pocket for his health insurance, and in a good year, he can sock $2,000 to $4,000 away in his retirement savings. He said millions of dollars go into EWEB employees’ retirement accounts, while his rates keep going up and up.
Mike Gerot spoke on behalf of the River Road Water District, saying the district has seen a 37 percent increase in its water bill from EWEB over the past three years.
And Jeff Demers of the Willamette Water Co. said he was blindsided by a 36 percent increase in the cost of water EWEB sells. EWEB General Manager Roger Gray took responsibility for the lack of notice to Demers’ company.
Ratepayer Mark Hudson predicted EWEB will see even more rate increases because Bonneville will raise its rates by 12 to 21 percent in the coming year. “This blame thing is not going to help anything,” he said.
He suggested that the utility raise money by selling its riverfront headquarters to the city of Eugene, get some federal infrastructure money with the help of U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, and bring in University of Oregon business students to evaluate the utility’s business and suggest ideas.
EWEB commissioners suggested they’re in a quandary.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that everybody is hurting, and there is no doubt in my mind that employees earn the money that’s paid, but at some point something has got to give,” Commissioner Rich Cunningham said.
Commissioner John Brown said EWEB’s big costs are a product of the wholesale power market – and from Bonneville’s big cost increases.
“BPA. We can’t control them. We can’t touch them,” Brown said.
But he also acknowledged that some EWEB customers can’t afford rate increases.
“Rhonda,” Brown said to the lawn mower parts worker, “I heard you. I heard you loud and clear.”
Here are approved rate increases for 2013:
Electricity: The rates will rise by 4 percent in May, adding about $3.75 to the monthly bill of an average residential customer.
Water: The rate will increase by 20 percent in February, adding about $5 to the monthly bill of an average residential customer.
Source: Eugene Water & Electric Board
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