Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 9:09 AM
The Public Utilities Commission is expected to – in some way – reverse a decision it made in December that has as much as doubled the electric bills for some small businesses. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on the impact of a decision that helped big customers but is wiping out some small ones.
Back in 1998, Ernie Schott and his wife Patty bought Taggart’s ice cream parlor. It’s a Canton icon they can walk to from their home a few blocks away. It has high-backed wooden benches, a player piano, striped awnings and a concoction called the Bittner.
“We also kept all the same recipes, ice cream, just as it was from the original back in 1926. And we kept the same name because you don’t change something that works.”
What has changed, and is not working, is the electric bill. Schott penciled the numbers onto a scrap paper, and they follow the general pattern you expect to see at an ice cream parlor. Lower in the winter, higher in the summer.
But what makes Schott jump is the comparison of this winter’s bills and last.
“I go back to January of last year, we had our bills at $968 to be exact ; this January it went to $1,355.”
February was worse: A hike of more than 40 percent.
“I can only imagine what’s going to happen in June, July and August if they’re going to jump like this. We’re going to be way up in the middle 25-hundred, 26-hundred number, which is going to be very hard to survive in a small business.”
What Schott is seeing in his bills is the result of a decision in December by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Like a large part of Stark County and points south, Taggarts is served by American Electric Power. And AEP is moving toward a modified deregulation plan over the next four years. The short read on the deal is that it means higher electric rates for all customers.
But the longer read is a bit more complicated.
Originally, AEP proposed reduced rates for many small-businesses and higher rates for big manufacturers. But after extensive hearings, the PUCO did the opposite. Under the final plan, rates go up less for major manufacturers and big institutional users because they use power all day and night.
That’s left local governments, schools and small businesses facing a big increase. PUCO spokesman Matt Butler says the agency has received more than 400 complaints. And where the regulators had expected bills to go up 10 to 30 percent, he said some have doubled.
AEP spokesman Jeff Rennie says there’s no reason for the PUCO to be surprised at the outcome or complaints.
“We made all our rate information available to (PUCO) staff during the negotiating process that took place throughout last year, so they had all the information we had to make a decision.”
And the Columbus Dispatch confirms that. It published emails from one of the PUCO’s staff that acknowledged it – quote—“doesn’t hardly seem fair,” and predicted small-business owners wouldn’t be shocked to receive the first bill in January.
The PUCO’s Butler says the commissioners – like an appeals court – can only act on information that is formally before it, and those e-mails were not.
Regardless, he says, the PUCO now wants to make things better for small business owners.
“We’re deeply troubled by what we’re hearing, and having acknowledged the negative impact the decision is having on those customers. We realist that small business is the backbone of Ohio’s economy, the foundation that everything else is going to be built on with the economic recovery going forward.”
Among the options the PUCO will consider this morning is an order that AEP reduce the rates, a shift in the rates or using some economic development funds to help small-business owners offset the higher rates.
Taggart’s Ernie Schott says he understands the need for AEP to upgrade and recoup its investments, and he expects reasonable increases. But if the PUCO doesn’t come up with an alternative, Ernie Schott says his own choices are limited.
“We have no options but to pass it onto our customers. And when you do that to the customers you know how things are today in the economy, we’re going to probably lose customers . The Bittner now is like 5.75; so now you’re going to be looking at almost a $7 Bittner.”
So what’s a Bittner?
“Three-quarter pound of icecream, homemade, we also mix our own chocolate sauce in it. Then we sprinkle the pecans on top with a little bit of whipped cream. It’s been here since 1931, and we’d sure hate to take it away.”
And, heading into this morning’s meeting, it appears the PUCO feels the same way.