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Overflow crowd blasts Black Hills at PUC hearing

Black-robed Robert Garvey, an administrative judge for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, opened Thursday’s public hearing on Black Hills Energy and the testimony just poured out of the overflow crowd at the Pueblo County Courthouse.

The electric utility, which wants a 4 percent rate hike, was called “criminal,” called “greedy.” was charged with abusing the elderly and the disabled with rate increases and disconnect practices.

More than two dozen witnesses spoke and all urged the PUC to deny Black Hills any increase. Some witnesses were in tears or, like Beth Gladney, fighting them.

“We need a champion, we need somebody to help us,” said Gladney, a local business owner and chairman of the Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority.

The judge, who will make a recommendation to the three PUC commissioners on the rate request, said the big turnout was important.

“Trust me. It makes a huge impression when so many people show up for a public hearing that the fire marshal has to clear out some of the crowd,” he said.

In fact, Pueblo fire officers ordered several dozen people out of the packed chambers about 5 p.m. They waited their chance to speak in the rotunda area of the courthouse.

In fact, Garvey will have a second hearing next Thursday at the Pueblo Convention Center for anyone still wanting to testify about the Black Hills request. That meeting also will begin at 4 p.m.

Black Hills officials were on hand for the hearing but they had to have expected what they heard about higher rates. But perhaps not from so many different kinds of customers.

At the high end, Jim Warren, owner of American Iron & Metals, stunned the crowd when he said he pays $67,000 a month in electric costs for his metal shredding company – twice what his competitors pay in Greeley and Colorado Springs.

“For this community to grow, we need affordable power and we don’t have affordable power,” he said.

At the low end, Konrad Gerlach, a county resident, said he’d even begun using a wood-burning stove to avoid using electricity in the winter. He got the only big laugh of the hearing when he said Black Hills installed a “smart” electric meter on his house to help him.

“And it sure was a smart meter because that’s when my electricity bills really went up,” he said.

Sister Nancy Crafton, of El Centro de Los Pobres, has been the utility’s chief critic for years, detailing how poor people lose service and then face steep reconnection costs. She told Garvey her charity has spent over $390,000 helping poor families reconnect to Black Hills.

Crafton said only 900 of Black Hills 93,000 customers have received help from the utility’s assistance program.

“I’ve decided Black Hills likes shutoffs because they get a lot of money from them (being restored),” she said. “They have a big noose and it’s around our neck and its immoral.”

Former City Councilman Al Gurule said it was time for council to look at canceling its franchise agreement with Black Hills and create its own utility, which would likely meaning buying Black Hills’ local power station and infrastructure.

“We need to get our community back on the right track,” he said.

In its filings with the PUC, Black Hills is asking for the rate increase to cover the costs of a $50 million wind farm and leftover costs from building its $500 million Pueblo Area Generating Station.

Some of those costs are high-interest debt that the state Office of Consumer Counsel argues shouldn’t be passed on to Pueblo ratepayers.

Cindy Schonhaut, the new OCC director, was at Thursday’s hearing even though she didn’t take part. Neither did Black Hills officials.

“I wanted to hear what the public had to say,” she said.