Energy Customers: Lights or Food? I Shouldn't Have to Pick.

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Lights or food? Pueblo residents are afraid they will have to choose between the two, if they see a proposed 19 percent increase in their energy bill.

Black Hills Energy is considering raising their rates by 19 percent, charging customers about 63 cents more per day.

Residents told officials it’s simply a burden they cannot bear at a public meeting Tuesday. They said it wasn’t fair, since they already saw a 10 percent increase on their bill last year.

Black Hills customer and Pueblo resident Daniel Garcia wants to know, “What’s the urgency?” He doesn’t understand why they have to raise the rates all at once.

“Why not stretch it over four years, three years. Right now they are trying to do it all at once, when no one has that kind of money. Gas is going back up again. This is not the time and we are not the public that can afford it,” said Garcia.

Garcia tells 11 News it doesn’t make sense to do the increase now, since Pueblo has one of the largest unemployment rates in the country and since the nation is struggling in tough economic times.

Pueblo city, county, and school representatives also testified at the public meeting Tuesday. They expressed their frustration with the proposed increase. The Superintendent for D-70, Ed Smith, talked about all the increases schools are suffering through these days and how it's greatly impacting children’s education. He said they are seeing about $700 less per student because of drastic cuts to funding, which has made them take funding that was meant for the classrooms. He said an increase in utilities for the schools something they simply can’t afford, and says it would take away from the success of the district’s students.

Other customers spoke about being disabled and on a fixed income. They asked for help, saying that the cost of living is increasing, but their disability stays the same. They talked about how five or six families started living together just to afford utilities.

In other testimony, people told officials that it was a burden that should not be the customers', but instead the shareholders'.

Both state and local AARP members were out in force, to tell officials this increase would drastically affect the elderly and low income families.

"Anyone can tell you that food has gone up, medicine has gone up, and we're going to have some of our older adults and people with lower incomes who have to chose between food, medicine, and how to pay for their utilities,” said Angela Cortez, Communications Director for AARP Colorado.

Cortez expressed opposition to the rate hike. She says it would have long term and dire consequences for families with lower incomes and older adults on fixed incomes. She told 11 News that some elderly folks need to maintain even temperatures in their homes for health reasons. If they can’t pay their bills, they could lose operation of their life-saving appliances.

“It’s easy to say put on a sweater in the winter or suffer through a couple degrees higher in the summer, but its not necessarily that easy when you have medical apparatus in your house or you have a certain type of condition when you need to maintain a certain level of comfort,” added Cortez.

The public hearing comes at a time when Black Hills and other utility companies are already under fire by charitable organizations in the Pueblo area. They say a number of people have been disconnected because of unpaid bills. People testified about being disconnected at the hearing.

The public hearing was hosted by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to determine if this was a fair increase to put on customers. About 40 people testified in front of the Commissioners, with a room packed with nearly 100 people.

Blacks Hills is requesting the increase to pay for the construction of a $478 million natural gas-fired power plant being built north of Pueblo Memorial Airport.

Christopher Burke, Vice President for Colorado Utility Operations- Black Hills Energy told 11 News the new power plant would allow them to “own” the energy they provide for customers, instead of “renting” it. He says right now they have a purchase power agreement, and 75 percent of their energy they get from the Public Service Company of Colorado.

Burke said the purchase power agreement, expires January 2012, and that’s when they plan to have the new facility on-line. They wanted to do this increase for pay for the new facility.

If approved, the increase would take effect January of 2012. It will first be discussed at a evidence hearing in Denver in October. If approved, customers would see a 18.84 percent increase or about $19 a month added to their bill. PUC says small businesses could see a monthly rate increase of about $67.

The rate hike would affect all Colorado Black Hills Energy customers, which officials say is about 93,300 people.