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In 'unprecedented' move, IPL researched customers who spoke out against rate hike proposal

Consumer advocates concerned, troubled by analysis
Posted at 5:23 PM, Jul 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-13 23:49:31-04

INDIANAPOLIS —  IPL researched customers who spoke out against the utility’s proposed $88.3 million increase, records show, angering ratepayers and consumer advocates who say the analysis “crossed the line.”

A spokesperson with the state’s utility watchdog, the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, called IPL’s actions “unprecedented.”

“A utility has the right to respond, in rebuttal, to anything the OUCC includes in its testimony in a given case,” said Anthony Swinger, director of external affairs for the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor. “But it is bad policy and unhelpful to the regulatory process when a party attempts to discredit the views of consumers who have shared their views in a public forum.”

If approved by state regulators, the average residential IPL customer would pay $11.50 more per month.

The utility held several field hearings this spring in which it allowed customers to voice their opinions on the proposed rate increase.

Amy Harwell, an IPL ratepayer, testified against the rate increase at the April 23 hearing at Arsenal Tech High School.

Harwell has trouble paying her power bills.

“I’m a single woman, a senior,” said Harwell.  “They’re lining their pockets, and they don’t understand the quality of life depends on everything a senior or the less fortunate person does.”

RELATED: IPL would boost revenue if regulators approve hike

What Harwell and other customers didn’t know is that after speaking out, IPL researched their bills.

“There are other people who say after doing this research for speaking my mind, then I might be afraid to speak and that is wrong,” said Harwell. “This country is built on free speech and they’re taking it away from people.”

As part of its proposal, IPL wants to increase the fixed monthly customer charge from $17 to $27.

Indianapolis Power and Light’s director of Regulatory and RTO Policy Justin Sufan submitted rebuttal testimony to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) on June 21.

In his testmony, Sufan said IPL gathered and analyzed bills for customers who spoke out against the proposed increase.

“In response to the articulated concerns from multiple customers at the Field Hearings (specifically related to the customer charge), we chose to perform an analysis on this matter,” said Sufan. “In doing so, we analyzed the effects of our proposed rate design, empirically, for actual customers to determine if the customer concerns were accurately placed. This is essentially the same type of analysis we perform when an individual customer calls us with a concern about their bill.”

Sufan said most of the customers analyzed were considered low electricity usage customers, and most did not appear to be low income users.

IPL said it found customers who spoke out would actually experience lower bills if the monthly customer charge were to increase.

“IPL’s analysis showed that the customers in the test group (i.e. mostly low-usage, not low-income) would, on the whole, experience lower total bills under IPL’s proposed rate design as compared to a rate design with no change in the customer charge,” said Sufan.

IPL also said that customers’ written comments “represent about one half of one percent (0.5%) of IPL’s residential customers” and the vast majority stemmed from campaigns organized by the Sierra Club and Citizens Action Coalition.

"Basically they're alleging that the customers that spoke out were somehow zombies of my organization,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director at the Citizens Action Coalition. “That's problematic and troubling for us, because the people that spoke out are concerned customers who have concern with their own financial situation or neighbors or clients. "

Olson said their goal has been to educate the public.

“We believe we’ve done a fair job and the information we provided the public is credible,” said Olson. “We’re just trying to assist the public in making sure their voices are heard in this public process.”

Olson said he has never seen a utility research customers who spoke out at a field hearing.

“That’s really alarming,” said Olson. “We feel like IPL crossed a line here. We found it creepy to say the least.”

Call 6 Investigates reached out to IPL public relations manager Claire Dalton, who emphasized that IPL presented the information without individual customer information such as names or addresses.

“IPL takes great pride in serving our customers, which includes listening to their input and concerns.  The purpose of this testimony was to better understand the perspective of the submitted public comments,” said Dalton in an email to RTV6.  “ In this testimony, IPL presented a hypothetical analysis utilizing anonymous data to better understand how its proposed rate plan would affect concerned customers.  We consider comments and total bill impacts for all of our customers.”

Customers and advocates are concerned IPL’s research will have a chilling effect on ratepayers wanting to speak out in the future.

“They should have the right to free speech in an open forum without fear of retribution or fear of intimidation,” said Olson.

Amy Harwell said it will not stop her from sharing her opinion.

“I think it’s time for someone to scream, and heck if I can’t scream loud enough, I will find a way,” said Harwell.

IPL initially requested a $124.5 million increase adjusted its request to $96.7 million in February 2018, due to changes under the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Last month, IPL adjusted its request to $88.3 million.

A settlement agreement is in the works, but it won’t address all of the issues including the fixed charge.

A hearing is scheduled for July 26 and could last up to four days, records show.

Click here to see how your bill would be impacted by the proposed rate increase.

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