Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 28, 2014

Highest utility bills: No surprises in CAD report

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Here we go again. Another year, another unacceptable report. Once again the greater Bluefield area of Mercer County leads the state in terms of utility rates paid by citizens, according to the annual findings from the Consumer Advocate Division of the state Public Service Commission.

The report doesn’t come as a surprise. This annual study has ranked the Bluefield area at the top of the state now for several years in terms of utility rates paid by citizens.

The study also found that utility rates in general increased 1.2 percent in 2013 for residents of the Mountain State. But the greatest increases were found in the Bluefield area.

Utility rates used in the annual report are based on the average monthly usage by a residential customer, according Jackie Roberts, director of the CAD division at the PSC.

The study found that the average West Virginia utility customer in 2013 paid $280.62 a month for gas, electricity, water and telephone service last year. In 2012, the average monthly cost was $277.22.

And the study found that monthly utility rates in the state ranged from a low of $258.82 in Morgantown to $316.25 in Bluefield.

Blaine Braithwaite, executive director of the South Bluefield Neighborhood Association, says a number of factors, including a loss of population and an increase in infrastructure costs, could be attributed to the high utility rates in Mercer County. The neighborhood association has been active in recent years challenging public utility rate increase applications pending before the commission.

Braithewaite also correctly points to flaws in the way public utilities are regulated in West Virginia. For example, even though the recent chemical spill in Charleston did not affect Bluefield, the way the law is written it means rate payers in Bluefield will still be paying for it through their water bill, Braithewaite said last week.

“It’s a broken system with complex issues. It needs to be reviewed, updated and fixed,” he said.

Braithewaite is correct. And we find it to be particularly troubling when action is not taken to address repetitive reports with alarming statistics for our region. Year after year we report on the fact that Bluefield leads the state in terms of utility rate increases. And year after year we call upon our lawmakers and other elected officials to take corrective action. And yet nothing is done. Why?

If citizens in one of the most economically challenged parts of the state are being asked, once again, to pay more than their neighbors, then something is definitely wrong with the way we regulate public utilities in West Virginia.

Where is the outrage from our local representatives? We need to hear from our state lawmakers, the Bluefield Board of Directors and the Mercer County Commission — among others — on this issue. When something is broken, it should be fixed. Why are we still waiting to correct this obvious problem?