Cities fight utility giant’s attempt to let state decide rate increases
By 07/03/2003 00:00:00
Higher utility bills expected
The Ellis County Press
ELLIS COUNTY - Several city leaders are fighting recent attempts by a utility company to sidestep local control of rate increases.
In Ellis County, only Midlothian, Ennis and Waxahachie have joined a coalition to fight ONCOR.
Geoffrey Gay, a 25-year consumer advocate lawyer representating the Texas Coalition of Cities for Utilities Issues fighting against an ONCOR rate increase, said it would be okay if the energy giant wanted to just consolidate, but they are also wanting an additional $70 million in revenue.
'They're (ONCOR) milking the consumer … every time they have asked for a consolidation they've asked for a rate increase,' said Gay.
TCCFUI is comprised of 125 cities, including the three Ellis County cities, with more added weekly to fight the utility giant.
ONCOR is asking city governments to defer their city's jurisdiction of gas utility rates to the state level, so a statewide rate increase proposal can be presented to the Texas Railroad Commmission in Austin.
Local homeowners' and business owners' gas bills are
expected to rise if the Texas Railroad Commission approves ONCOR's request for a statewide gas rate hike.
Each city within ONCOR's service area currently has its own rates, which can differ greatly from town to town, according to ONCOR Town Manager Manuel Flores.
The statewide plan would put all cities on a level playing field with other cities large or small, ensuring every city had the same rates to compete to lure new businesses and corporations into their area, according to ONCOR.
'We're simplifying our rate process. So there's not so much confussion,' ONCOR Representative Mike Cain said, while addressing the Italy City Council.
Several smaller Ellis County cities, including Italy and Ferris, have decided to defer their jurisdiction to the state agency, with the stipulation if another nearby city received a lower rate they could take advantage of it.
'If I am going to pay the same rate others pay I want the same service,' said Italy Mayor Pro-Tem Jimmy Hyles 'We haven't been getting the same service.'
ONCOR representatives told councilmembers in both cities joining a coalition would result in their residents having an additional $3-4 added to their monthly bill to pay lawyers and experts who would represent the cities in fighting the utility giant.
According to Flores, if the cities elected to grant jurisidiction to the Railroad Commission, the state would bear the cost of paying attorneys and experts to determine if a rate increase is justified.
'City rate case expenses [would be] reimbursed by the company - by law,' said Gay.
Gay said he has heated debates with ONCOR company officials whose employees have been misrepresenting the law.
'We have a lot of concerns,' said Waxahachie Civil Service Director and Special Projects Director Janet Adkins.
'Why are they wanting to go to a statewide rate? Why are they trying to get rates raised?
'We want the see the rates reduced. We feel our citizens are paying a much higher rate.'
Under a statewide plan, ONCOR would present their case to the TRC when seeking rate increases, instead of going to every individual city they serve.
Some city leaders said they believe this is an attempt to keep city councils from fighting the increases by side-stepping the local governments by going directly to state regulatory agencies.
ONCOR is seeking a 7.2 percent rate hike in the 550 Texas communities they serve.
Most residential consumers would notice their monthly gas bill increase an additional $3.62 a month on average, said Flores as he presented his case to the Ferris City Council.
Commercial consumers will pay approximately about $6.52 more a month for service.
'Do you not worry about pricing yourself out of the ballpark?' Councilman Jessie Hernandez asked, noting his monthly gas bill had tripled in the last year.
According to Flores, the company is asking for higher rates to offset the amount of money spent in improvements made in both pipeline and infrastructure within the last few years throughout the service region.
The final rate increase will be determined by the state regulatory agency.
TRC officials have 180 days to deliver their decision from May 23, the date the case was filed by ONCOR.