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Public a no-show at first BGE rate case hearing

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s third request for higher rates in as many years brought out zero customers — angry or otherwise — to offer their opinions to state regulators Monday night.

The hearing in Annapolis was the first of five this week around the region, all aimed at getting public input on the BGE case. The first hearing in the last rate case, which wrapped up in February, drew a single person to testify, but more people came to later meetings.

It wasn't that nobody attended Monday's meeting. About a dozen showed up. But they were largely with BGE or other organizations connected with the case.

"Is there anybody here who wishes to speak?" asked Linda Hurd, assistant manager of the office of external relations at the Maryland Public Service Commission, looking at the sparse and silent crowd. "No one?"

Members of the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, waited 20 minutes for latecomers. Then they adjourned.

Still, some customers are registering their unhappiness with BGE's request — by mail rather than in person. Peter Bell of Monkton, who says his bill is about twice what it was a few years ago, recently sent a written thumbs-down to the regulators.

"Just as we are being taxed out of our home we're being equally 'utilitized' out of our home," he wrote.

The commission is expected to decide next month whether to allow BGE to raise its distribution rate, the charge for moving energy to customers and keeping up infrastructure.

BGE is asking for an additional $3.90 a month on the typical residential electric bill and $1.96 a month more on the typical residential gas bill. Customers receiving both electric and gas would pay about $5.50 extra, the utility says.

As part of that case, BGE is also requesting a monthly surcharge on electricity customers, starting at about 34 cents a month on typical residential bills and increasing to 75 cents by the fifth year. The company is seeking a surcharge on gas customers, too, though in a separate case.

BGE said both additional fees would be used to accelerate the pace of work intended to cut down on outages and other problems, and it said its rate request also includes reimbursement for past infrastructure improvements. The company argues that its electric distribution rates last year were 28 percent less than they were 15 years earlier — accounting for inflation. Gas rates were up 8 percent by that measure.

That does not include the cost of energy, which accounts for much of customers' bills and has fluctuated dramatically in the past decade.

The state Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers, is among those pushing back on BGE's request. The agency doesn't think customers should be hit with a surcharge for work that is a utility's core responsibility — providing reliable service via good infrastructure. It also contends that BGE's rate hike ought to be about 75 percent less than the company asked for.

BGE's request would bring in $107 million more revenue during the first year. In February, the company won the right to collect about $113 million more from customers over the year — about a third less than it had requested.

Regulators have heard from big customers about the pending case. Todd Chason, lead attorney for the Maryland Energy Group, which represents more than a dozen large energy users such as hospitals and manufacturers, said in an interview Monday that the more frequent need to challenge rate requests in the last few years has put a burden on his clients.

The utility, blaming infrastructure needs, picked up the pace of rate cases after a years-long stretch with just one. Rachael Lighty, a BGE spokeswoman, said the next request will likely come next year or in 2015.

"It just becomes a tough proposition," Chason said, noting that the employers foot the bill for representation during many hours of rate-case hearings. "And then they end with an increase in rates."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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BGE hearings

State regulators are seeking opinions from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers about the utility's request for a rate increase and monthly surcharges. The hearings, which all begin at 7 p.m., are scheduled in the following locations this week:

•Tuesday in the meeting room of the Baltimore County Public Library's Towson Branch, 320 York Road.

•Wednesday in Wohlman Assembly Hall of the War Memorial Building, 101 N. Gay St. in Baltimore.

•Thursday in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.

•Friday in the Town Hall Rotunda, 39 Hickory Ave., Bel Air.

Regulators will also accept written comments through Nov. 22, mailed to David J. Collins, executive secretary of the Maryland Public Service Commission, at the William Donald Schaefer Tower, 6 St. Paul St., 16th floor, Baltimore 21202. The comments should include a reference to either Case No. 9326, the request for a distribution rate increase and electric surcharge, or Case No. 9331, the gas surcharge request.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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