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The consumers’ advocate

The first of two public hearings to discuss Black Hills Energy’s most recent proposed rate increase convenes at 4 p.m. today. It will take place in the county commissioners’ chambers at the Pueblo County Courthouse, 215 W. 10th St., Pueblo.

And this evening, the consumers have a strong advocate in their corner.

The meeting is intended to let rate-weary residents share with the Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, their stories about how high energy bills impact their day-to-day lives.

It’s the known woes that have raised red flags with the state Department of Regulatory Affairs’ Office of Consumer Counsel. The OCC is a separate division of the department that is charged with advising the PUC on utility rates and policy matters.

Black Hills wants to increase rates to help cover the cost of the $50 million wind farm. Estimates have shown that it could raise the average residential client’s bill by about $4 per month.

But Cindy Schonhaut, the new director of the OCC, is pushing back against the utility’s proposal. Ms. Schonhaut is advised the commission to actually cut local ratepayers’ bills, going so far as to accuse Black Hills of indifference to its consumers’ financial concerns.

The Office of Consumer Counsel in recent testimony charged that the utility’s parent company foisted its heaviest debt burden onto its low- to moderate-income Southern Colorado clientele. But it also offered a reasonable, constructive alternative when it proposed the company spread its debt equally across all of its subsidiaries.

Black Hills Utility Holding Co. rebutted those charges. Its representatives countered that the new rate request includes some remaining expenses from local construction, and that Black Hills was entitled to use projected expenses for 2014 – as opposed to the actual historic costs from 2013 – when it drafted its rate increase proposal.

For residents who cannot make this evening’s session, a second hearing is on the agenda for 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 11, at the Pueblo Convention Center, 320 Central Main St., Pueblo.

Whatever the end result of the rate request, we are grateful both that the OCC has taken a strong stance on behalf of the consumer and that the PUC is taking the time to hear our thoughts.