Our Opinion: DPU rate hike gift is mixed with coal

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This is the time of year to deck the halls with holiday metaphors, so it's fitting to suggest that the state Department of Public Utilities' trimming of Eversource's proposed electricity distribution rate hike is like finding a 30 percent smaller lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.

Before we all go out singing Hosannas that we have been spared at the last minute by the electricity gods, let us remember that Eversource originally asked for $34.7 million in hikes to be borne by the individual, public and commercial electricity consumers of Western Massachusetts. The $24 million hike will still hurt and will be compounded with a seasonal adjustment for the increased cost of natural gas generation in winter — a pass-through from the companies that produce the juice that Eversource distributes (Eagle, December 2).

The real cockroach in the eggnog, however, is Eversource's tilting of the rate hike to favor consumers in Eastern Massachusetts, and the company's continued failure to clearly explain the reasons for doing so. Rather than specific rate figures, Eversource has only managed to generate abstruse formulas designed to fog the air when it comes to explaining the east-west discrepancy.

We have already witnessed the deeply harmful effects that rate hikes can have on Berkshire County: In 2007, precipitous rate increases forced two paper companies, employing hundreds of workers, to shut down because they were no longer competitive. Then there is the double-hit to property taxpayers: School districts and local governments, with buildings, streetlights and traffic signals to illuminate, are customers also.

The bright star in this otherwise bleak utility landscape is that when the DPU held local hearings about the hikes, people actually showed up to complain. Everyone from business owners to individual residents to government officials made their displeasure known, without which the DPU, charged with acting as the public's representative in negotiations with providers, might have just shrugged and walked away from a fight it felt was not worth waging. Attorney General Maura Healey, who serves at the pleasure of an electricity-consuming electorate, also weighed in with harsh words.

The case was made that Berkshire County, being more vulnerable and sensitive to price hikes than its more affluent eastern counterparts, should not be made the whipping boy when a company that could make a case for a small increase because of its own higher expenses goes overboard. Ultimately, that argument was only partially successful. Additionally, Eversource may have asked the DPU for far more in increases than it knew it would get, and is pleased with the reduced amount.

The bottom line is that Western Massachusetts Eversource customers — which number about 200,000 — are going to have to bear a $24 million increase in rates next year. Nobody knows what the actual hit will be to public entities, businesses and individual ratepayers because Eversource hasn't released such information in a timely manner. Also remaining in place are byzantine regulations that make it difficult for businesses to pursue other energy sources and penalize companies that remain with higher rates to compensate for companies that do manage to leave. There is still plenty of coal in this Christmas stocking.


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