Around half a dozen residents gathered at Bluefield City Hall Tuesday afternoon to protest a proposed rate increase by a local utility company.

A handful of members of the public were present during the Public Service Commission’s evidentiary hearing about a 6.89 percent proposed rate increase proposed by Bluefield Gas.

Bluefield resident Randall Smothers addressed members of the PSC and gas company, stating the company was not taking the needs of its customers into consideration with the proposal.

“I live in an older house, and I have lived there for 34 years,” Smothers said. “I have spent a considerable amount of money to make my house more energy efficient. My gas bill has quadrupled over the past 34 years while my income has not kept up with it. People who lived on fixed incomes cannot live on this increase. Company’s don’t consider who is paying their bills and keep coming back, year after year, for increases.”

Smothers said he did not feel it was fair that public hearings where held at a time inconvenient to most citizens.

“They hold these meetings at a time the public can’t come because they aren’t able to take off work,” Smothers said.

“It’s an injustice to the public. It seems to me this is set up so people can’t complain to the company.”

Blaine Braithwaite, executive director of the South Bluefield Neighborhood Association, said his organization didn’t intervene on the proposal but felt the company had not met their “burden of proof” in showing why the rate increase was needed.

 “The current distribution system is 50 years old and citizens have been paying for it over and over,” Braithwaite said. “This will be the third time residents have had to pay for mortgages on pipes that were put in during the 1920s and 1930s. The company has applied for a rate increase every year for the past ten years, with the exception of 2008 and 2010, and every year they have applied for an increase, they have gotten it.”

Braithwaite also said the company was asking for customers to cover costs of bills the gas company’s debt collectors were unable to recoup.

“Bluefield Gas said their rate of bill collection in 2010 was lower than usually, which they probably should have anticipated due to our current economic state,” Braithwaite said. “How is it far to rate-payers to cover an area of risk the company has totally under control. If they are having a trouble with their collection’s agency meeting expected collections, how are the customers responsible.”

According to Braithwaite, giving the company the proposed request would be rewarding them for “imprudent” business practices.

“Don’t reward the company for an imprudent decision,” he said. “This community can ill afford anything.”

Bluefield City Manager Andy Merriman also spoke at the hearing on behalf of the Bluefield Board of Directors.

“I do feel the burden of all utilities has fallen on the citizens of Bluefield,” Merriman said. “We are paying 22 percent higher on rates than anywhere else in the state. That particularly needs to be taken into account when considering whether any rate increase should be made. This continues to toss burning embers on our heads.”

A spokesperson for the company read a statement issued Bluefield Gas Vice-President John D. Jessee, explaining the company’s reasons for the proposed increase. Jessee himself was unable to attend the hearing due to a “medical emergency.”

The statement issued by the company cited several reasons for asking the PSC for a rate increase, including a loss of around 200 customers since their last rate increase approval in 2009. Among those customers, the company said they had seen significant losses after the closure of Flower’s Bakery, one of their larger commercial customers.

The company also said they needed to recoup an estimated $500,000 in funds spent on maintaining current lines and facilities, and said the rate increase was also needed to continue paying salaries and benefits for employees.

Despite the proposed increase, a company spokesperson said Bluefield area residents would still be paying less on their bills than they were two years ago.

The average customer’s bill would increase by an average of $6.78 per month if the full increase were approved.

The company applied for the 6.89 percent rate increase in March 2011 before applying for a 6.6 percent decrease in August. Bluefield Gas serves approximately 3,600 customers in the local area.

Anyone who could not make the public hearing can send their comments in to the PSC through the mail to Executive Secretary, Public Service Commission, PO Box 812, Charleston, WV 25323.

The Public Service Commission will render it’s final decision on whether or not to grant the proposed increase by Jan. 18, 2012.

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