By: CLARE MARIE CELANO |
A standing-room-only crowd of New Jersey residents and officials packed the large meeting room at the Freehold Township municipal complex on April 24. Most had turned out to ask the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to reject a $600 million rate increase proposal submitted by Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L).
Many attendees were senior citizens supported by AARP, an organization that represents individuals age 50 and over and advocates for them on many issues. The people in that group were easily identified because they were wearing bright yellow Tshirts with “AARP Utility Watchdogs” printed on the back.
They came to say their piece and to ask the BPU to reject the electric company’s request for a raise.
The hearing gave the attendees an opportunity to learn the details of the company’s request for a rate increase and to have a chance to have their opinions, concerns and comments entered into the official record regarding the proposal. Several people who spoke said that in the wake of Sandy, when crews from outside the state came to New Jersey to help restore power, the out-of-state utility workers applied a “patch and run” method.
One of the main themes expressed by many who spoke in opposition to the proposed rate increase was “Where has all the money gone?” Speakers urged the BPU to “follow the money” that has been paid by ratepayers.
Carl Anthony Cooper of Holmdel asked the BPU representatives to order a skilled forensic auditor to “follow the money.” He asked the BPU to “take a hard, careful look at where the money has gone since First Energy took over [JCP&L] 10 years ago.”
“First Energy has forced JCP&L to become a sunny-day operation by relying on out-of-state workers during severe outages,” Cooper said, adding that the firm’s performance during Sandy was “wretched.” David Gottlieb of Monroe Township said, “Shame on us if we reward a company that is so poorly managed.”
Gottlieb said JCP&L should have invested in capital improvements.
“We live in fear of the next storm,” he said, adding that his concern is for people who use a medical alert system or other medical equipment that relies on an uninterrupted supply of electricity.
“Why should we need to hunt around for a generator when the power company should readily supply this energy?” Gottlieb said.
He said JCP&L should find a way to fix the problem without “bleeding people to death.”
Many of those who spoke at the hearing said they already pay a lot for their electric service and said they were worried about how they would be able to pay more. It was noted that, in some adult communities, all of a home’s utilities are electric.
Anna Tatro, 85, of Freehold Township, said she can no longer afford to live in her home. She said she cannot afford a generator to supply power during an outage.
“I don’t want to leave my home, but I will soon have to put it up for sale,” she said.
Tatro asked if anyone knew how to help her get more money to live on.
“JCP&L knew where to go to get more money. They came to you and to me,” she said to those in the audience.
“Don’t pay your bill. Enough is enough.”
Susan O’Brien of Fair Haven said she grew up in the borough and cannot remember lengthy power outages such as the ones experienced in recent times.
Then again, I realize the equipment was a lot younger when I was young. But I am tired of living in a third-world country where every time the wind blows, we lose power,” she said.
O’Brien said she wants JCP&L to improve its infrastructure and said it was “unconscionable” to ask ratepayers to foot the bill for work that should have been done years ago.
Allison Friedman of Aberdeen Township said she believes JCP&L should use its profits first in these “hard economic times” to pay for infrastructure upgrades.
“It is fiscally irresponsible of them to want more and it has to stop. [They should] use their profits first before they ask the BPU to allow them to increase the rates,” she said.
Those speaking in support of JCP&L’s proposed rate increase were few in number, but appeared to be sincere in their comments.
Ed Stroup, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which includes employees from JCP&L Local 1289, spoke with pride and passion in defense of his members as he noted that they worked 16-hour shifts for several weeks to restore power in the aftermath of Sandy.
“We are being hit with storms that are no longer once-in-a-lifetime storms, and they place a tremendous strain on our infrastructure. Our workers were in the dark, too,” Stroup said. “When things are as bad as they can be, JCP&L workers come to work, leaving their families when they are needed the most.”
Stroup said the utility needs to recover its costs.
Also speaking in support of the proposed rate increase were Manalapan Office of Emergency Management (OEM) coordinator Richard Hogan, who said he was speaking on behalf of Manalapan Mayor Susan Cohen, Old Bridge Councilman Reginald Butler and Sayreville Business Administrator Dan Frankel.
All three men said their regular contact with JCP&L representative Gerry Ricciardi provided them with up-to-date reports during and after the time Sandy battered New Jersey. They all praised his efforts.
Speaking on behalf of JCP&L was Mark A. Mader, director of rates and regulatory affairs, who said most of the proposed increase is needed to recover the nearly $800 million that was spent responding to and repairing the damage to the power system that was caused by damaging weather events that befell the Garden State.
Bethany Rocque-Romaine, a legal specialist with the BPU, said Judge Richard McGill and the board members will examine multiple factors to “ensure that JCP&L’s rates are just and reasonable and that the company is investing sufficiently to assure the provision of safe, adequate and proper service for its customers as required by law.”
JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano said, “While the effect on individual customers’ bills would depend on the specific residential or general service rate and actual monthly use, the impact from Sandy and the previously proposed rate request would result in an increase in the average monthly bill from $98.10 to $102.54 for a JCP&L residential customer using 650 kilowatt hours of electricity.”
Morano added that even with the proposed increase, “JCP&L would continue to have the lowest residential rates among the four New Jersey electric distribution companies regulated by the BPU, based on a statewide average of 650 kilowatt hours of monthly usage.”
“The hearings are a part of the process designed by regulations to allow customers to comment on the record,” Morano said. “We provide our testimony and allow opposing points of view.”