WALLA WALLA -- No sparks flew, but the current was mostly negative Tuesday at a hearing on a proposed electricity rate increase.
At least 10 of the 12 people offering comments to members of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission urged the request by Pacific Power be denied. About 30 people attended the hearing at Walla Walla City Hall.
The commission members were in town to take testimony on the 4.3 percent rate increase request from PacifiCorp, the Portland-based company that serves about 127,000 Washington company with electricity through Pacific Power. Commissioners will hold another meeting tonight in Yakima.
The first six speakers were all Boise Inc. employees, including company Vice President Terry Ward, who said that "from a company point of view we're very shocked about the rate hike."
The company has seen steep increases in Pacific Power electricity rates over the past several years, he said. The "almost annual" raises are threatening the viability of the mill, which supports hundreds of family-wage jobs, he said.
"We strongly urge you to reject this rate increase," he said.
The next two speakers, mill manager Patrick Moore and Melvin Crabb, safety captain and union leader, also said the rising power rates threaten the ability of the paper mill to survive.
"The jobs we provide are solid, family-wage jobs," Moore said. Increased power costs would make it that much harder in an "extremely competitive" business to sustain the mill against overseas rivals who have lower labor costs and cheaper power rates.
David Tobin, mill energy engineer, said rates keep going up despite efforts to conserve power at the plant.
"Our power consumption has been kept even, but power costs have gone up 34 percent," he said. "It's just becoming very, very tough to stay competitive."
But Carl Brenneise, a residential ratepayer and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee, pointed out Pacific Power, just like the Corps, has to deal with replacing or upgrading an aging infrastructure.
"Don't be so expectant of getting rates reduced because Pacific Power has to cover those costs," he said.
But other speakers questioned why the power company should be seeking a rate increase when, at the same time, customers are constantly being urged to conserve electricity.
"As consumers we're being asked to conserve, but their operating expenses are being reduced," said John Kristofferson. "And we're supposed to pay for that?"
At the end of the hearing, Jeff Goltz, UTC commission chairman, thanked the speakers for their testimony. Comments from community hearings such as the one in Walla Walla, he said, were every bit as valuable as testimony from experts.
"I can assure you we get a perspective that we don't get ... with all due respect to accountants, listening to a bunch of accountants," he said.
Andy Porter can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8318.
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