February 8, 2009 in City

Avista rate hikes draw protesters

More than 100 rally at utility’s headquarters
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Photos by Dan Pelle photo

Protesters gather on the sidewalk outside the Avista headquarters on Mission Ave. in Spokane on Saturday to demonstrate against high power bills.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Who to contact

To file a complaint against Avista’s rate increase, contact the Washington Utilities and Transportation Department at (800) 562-6150 or post a comment online at www.utc.wa.gov/ comment, referencing case number UE090134. Letters can be mailed to Washington UTC, P.O. Box 47250, Olympia WA 98504-7250.

Source: Jenna Cassidy

The last protest Alan Blum was part of was when President Richard Nixon visited Spokane for the opening of Expo ’74. Saturday, he was sufficiently riled up to join more than 100 people protesting Avista’s latest rate increase in front of the utility’s headquarters on Upriver Drive.

“My last bill was $165 and then the one I just got was $551,” said Blum, who lives in Otis Orchards. “I called them and they said the first bill was an estimate and the second one was an actual reading. They’d let me make payments, but that was it.”

Jenna Cassidy, a 24-year-old student at Washington State University, arranged the protest after her Avista bill nearly doubled in January.

“I’m really happy with the turnout and I’m moved by how much support I’ve gotten from people,” Cassidy said before addressing protesters via a megaphone.

“Enough is enough,” she told the crowd, over a cacophony of honking cars passing on Mission Avenue. “It’s time Avista gives our families a break.”

Last month, Washington’s attorney general appealed an increase in Avista’s rates that would generate an additional $112 million from its customers. The increased natural gas and electricity rates took effect on Jan. 1. Avista has also requested another rate increase that is expected to bring in another $74.7 million next year.

Protesters gathered on Avista’s lawn, and the company allowed demonstrators to use its parking lot nearby.

“These people here are our customers,” said Debbie Simock, Avista spokeswoman, who turned out for the event. “We are here to find out what their issues are and answer their questions.”

Protesters were especially upset with the high salaries and bonuses of Avista’s management team. Many said now would be a good time for Avista to cut back on compensation.

“Heck, I’d do the job for a third of that $2.5 million bonus the CEO gets,” said Blum, waving his sign.

Simock said rate increases have nothing to do with executive compensation.

“Out of every dollar people pay on their bills, less than one-half of one penny goes to executive compensation,” she explained. How much Avista can pay its executives is – just like rate increases – regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission approved the January rate increases that the Washington state attorney general is appealing.

The protesters seem to support the attorney general.

Waving signs reading “Avista Sucks,” “Blessed are the cold” and “Avista is a modern day vampire sucking us dry” the group shared stories of bill shock, layoffs and the many tough financial decisions they have to make in today’s flaccid economy.

“It’s just too much,” said Ozzie Stemmons, of Coeur d’Alene. “My husband lost his job so we are on one income. Our usage is down, yet the price is up by 20 percent compared to last year this time – it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Stemmons held two signs urging drivers to honk. Honk they did – so much she wished for earplugs.

“I don’t think anyone here is against Avista making a profit. But there’s profit and then there’s exploitation – this is exploitation,” she said. “I mean, shouldn’t investors make less when the rest of us do and the economy is the way it is? I think they should.”

John Hatcher of Coeur d’Alene-based Clean Energy Solutions brought a solar panel to the protest. The $600 panel would generate enough power to light a 100 watt and a 60 watt bulb, so one panel wouldn’t really affect a person’s power bill.

“You’d probably need 10 or 20 of these to really make a dent in your bill,” Hatcher said. “We are never going to live without power companies like Avista, but I figured this was a good place to meet people and tell them about solar power.”

By the end of the day, 147 people had signed a petition protesting the rate increase.

Cassidy distributed fliers explaining how to file a complaint with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

“It’s really important that people lodge an official objection to the rate increase,” Cassidy said, adding that people could pick up information from Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs on how to deal with a high power bill. “And call Avista. They will try and work with you.”

Simock said she wasn’t sure what effect the protest would have on rates.

“We are here to listen,” she said. “People are having a hard time right now.”

Reach Pia Hallenberg Christensen at (509) 459-5427 or piah@spokesman.com.

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