Andrew Dys

Proposed Duke utility increase would hammer poor, cost taxpayers millions

Just when anybody who works for a living or pays taxes thought that nobody else could try to stick another hand in a pocket or purse that is almost empty, here comes Duke Energy.

Last week, Duke announced it was asking South Carolina’s Public Service Commission to allow the company that had income of $1.7 billion in 2011 to raise rates more than 16 percent on residential customers, and 14 percent on commercial customers.

Everybody knows $1.7 billion just doesn’t go as far as it used to.

For the York school district – where officials announced last week they would be cutting 22 positions next school year to keep the doors open – that means an electricity bill that’s already more than $1 million a year will go up as much as $140,000 per year.

Instead of paying teachers, York will have to use taxpayers’ hard-earned money to heat the school and keep the lights on.

Every area school district – including Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Clover, Chester and Lancaster – is to some extent a Duke customer and would see rates skyrocket not just this year but forever.

The cost is staggering – millions of dollars over the years.

Chester County schools budget figures show the district has already paid Duke $834,000 for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which ends in June. Chester County, one of the poorest in the state, does not have an extra $150,000 laying around, so they’ll likely have to cut something.

Lancaster County schools paid Duke more than $32,000 last month alone, records show.

Who pays those bills? You do. Taxpayers pay for school lights and heat.

Every industry and employer would see rates jump. Who pays for that? Customers. You.

Duke said last week in a news release it needs the money to pay for investments in power plants, tree-cutting to keep snow and ice from knocking out power, and required security upgrades because of the threat of terrorism and federal regulation.

Duke did not mention in that release that it raised rates by 6 percent last year, too, after asking for a double-digit increase. And before that in some years, Duke raised rates, too, like the city of Rock Hill, which has raised rates at least 10 years running and built a $32 million operations center.

Duke’s executives plead poverty while looking out from the top floors of a skyscraper.

York Electric Cooperative, the third York County electricity provider, raised rates 1 percent in January, to cover higher costs of power, but expects no further increases this year, spokesman Marc Howie said.

Duke has more than a half-million customers in South Carolina, including more than 65,000 people in York, Chester and Lancaster counties – 31,513 in York County, 13,852 in Chester County, and 20,091 in Lancaster County.

Every one of those people would have to pay 16 percent more, if Duke gets everything it’s asking for.

In line at the PATH charity Wednesday morning in York, five Duke customers waved overdue bills. The temperature was 31 degrees at 8:30 a.m., and these people hopped from foot to foot to keep warm until PATH opened and prayers might be answered.

“I owe $277.94,” said Lisa White, 52. “I can’t pay what I owe them now. I am disabled. They raise it 16 percent and I am homeless, is what I am.”

Down the line stood John Moore, 72, who walks with a cane after a life working in a nursing home. His bill was $164.48.

“I don’t have it,” said Moore. “Duke wants more and nobody has more.”

Linda Mitchell waved a bill for $297. She was asked where she would get another $48 if the rates go up by 16 percent.

“If I don’t have what I owe; how does Duke expect me to pay more?” Mitchell asked.

Anne Perry, retired, showed her bill of $267. Barbara Mathis, unemployed, showed a bill of $310. Brian Rollins, at the front of the line, had a Duke bill for $86 and no job.

Add 16 percent to that, if Duke has its way.

Schools will tax more or pay fewer teachers to pay the higher rates. Regular people either pay or sit in the dark.

This is the same Duke that gave the Democrat National Committee a $10 million line of credit to help pay for its convention in Charlotte last summer. Duke shareholders wound up holding what turned out to be a $6 million bag for that.

This is the same Duke with the big new building with multi-colored lights in downtown Charlotte. To be fair, Duke leases that building after a bank built it, a Duke spokesperson said.

But in a time when wages are stagnant or down, poverty and unemployment are at near-record levels, Duke wants more.

Duke “understands there is never a good time to raise rates,” said spokeswoman Sharon Hall, but the increase is necessary to pay for cleaner, more efficient power plants. The company “understands it is going to be difficult” for people and schools and businesses to pay higher rates, she said.

But Duke’s investment in the economy and employment of more than 17,000 people in South Carolina and North Carolina is huge, Hall said.

As of Wednesday, eight people and businesses, including tire-making giant Michelin, had complained to the state Public Service Commission about Duke’s proposal. The complaints reflect the same theme: Regular people don’t have the money, and businesses can’t compete with higher rates.

Complaints can be made online and by telephone and by regular mail and by the most important method of all – an upset citizenry.

Duke can’t raise its rates without the government of South Carolina allowing it to do so. This summer, there will be hearings in Columbia, in which Duke with its army of lawyers and accountants and actuaries will tell a story of how it must have more of your money or barely scrape by.

In the last quarter of 2012 Duke had $435 million in profits, up from $248 million the year before. The CEO made $8.7 million last year, and one of the golden parachutes for one executive after Duke’s merger with Progress Energy cost $44 million.

In recent days, every school district locally has talked about cutting programs that teach poor kids how to read. The economy for working people has been in the dumps for five years.

In those same public hearings this summer, the public can tell Duke about the state’s double-digit poverty and higher-than-the-nation unemployment. School districts can tell Duke about how classrooms would go dark and teachers would be laid off if power prices go up at the same time they’re losing federal dollars.

If John Moore and Linda Mitchell and Anne Perry and Brian Rollins and Lisa White still have electricity by then, each can complain, too.