Energy regulator holds final public meeting on BGE Irene outages

Members of AARP Maryland attended the Maryland Public Service Commission's public hearing Tuesday night about Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s response to Hurricane Irene.
Members of AARP Maryland attended the Maryland Public Service Commission's public hearing Tuesday night about Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s response to Hurricane Irene. (Steve Kilar / The Baltimore Sun)

A crowd of more than 100 people, mostly seniors, gathered Tuesday evening to voice their concerns to the state's energy regulator about Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s performance following Hurricane Irene.

"It was scary," said Eileen Sakin, part of a busload of AARP members who attended the meeting. "We had no lights on our street or in our whole neighborhood."

It was the Maryland Public Service Commission's final public hearing on BGE's storm response. Of the state's utilities, BGE had the largest number of customers in the state affected by Irene-related outages, more than 750,000. Electricity was out for as long as eight days for some.

Six weeks after the storm blew through Maryland, most people in the crowd were still upset by the length of time they had gone without power and by the company's customer service during the outage.

Sakin was the first person — after several people spoke in favor of BGE's performance — to criticize the company. Cheers and clapping went up from the crowd as she began to address the panel.

In addition to a lack of security created by being without power, Sakin said, lost perishable food presents a hardship for seniors, many of whom are on a fixed income. Her concerns were echoed by several other seniors who spoke.

Many members of the organization were frustrated during the outage that they could not get reliable information from BGE's customer service center, said Henry M. "Hank" Greenberg, the state director for AARP. The Maryland chapter supplied roughly half the people in attendance.

About 15 people from the community organization Good Jobs Better Baltimore also attended.

Although their members in the crowd were largely hospital and nursing home workers who saw people with medical needs adversely affected by the outages, the organization's concerns about BGE were not limited to the response to Hurricane Irene, said Lisa Lucas-Alston, the group's member mobilization coordinator.

"We're asking BGE to start bringing the revenue back into our city," said Lucas-Alston, who hopes that BGE will create more jobs in the Baltimore metro region.

Jayla Watje, a Lake Walker resident who opened the public comments, said that part of the reason she attended the meeting was to get the facts about the company's intentions to increase rates.

Last week, BGE President and CEO Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr. told the PSC that the storm cleanup costs could total $90 million. The utility has said it expects to pass on some of those costs in an electricity distribution rate increase.

Although the purpose of the hearing was to gather the public's opinion on BGE's storm response, the commissioners did make clear at the start that if BGE did request a rate increase as a result of costs incurred during Irene, any increase would need to be approved by the PSC.

It typically takes more than half a year from the date of a rate increase request until a rate change would begin, the commission said.

Watje still took the opportunity to say that the workers "busted their butts, really," to restore power to her home.

"People are mad, they want to say the mad things," she said. "I wanted to come down and say the good things."

The majority of the crowd did not agree with her sentiment and said so as the hearing progressed.

"It's not BGE — it's the workers that you should be thanking," said Alicia Champlin, who said she worked for the company decades ago and was unhappy with how the company responded to the storm outages. "It made me feel sorry that I worked for them."

The meeting took place at Wohlman Assembly Hall of the War Memorial building, across the green from Baltimore's City Hall. The bus of AARP members left after an hour, but the meeting continued until the remaining people who wanted to speak could do so.

Several dozen people attended the PSC's other public hearing about BGE's storm response, held last month in Towson. The PSC will accept written public comments through Monday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Hanah Cho contributed to this article.