The last few months have been a roller-coaster ride for most Avista customers, but watching our heating bills reach new heights has been anything but fun.
Although Avista teased us by lowering the cost of natural gas recently, only a handful of us splurged with that extra $3 per month before being smacked by news that despite recent rate hikes, Avista made another request for even higher rates next year.
These rate hikes caused at least two entities to question the necessity for Avista to continue increasingly sharp rate hikes for Idaho and Washington customers, year after year, despite the worsening economic picture.
First, the Washington state attorney general’s office filed an appeal requesting further investigation into Avista’s 2008 rate hike. If valid, the appeal could result in refunds to Avista customers or a recommendation for further study.
The Idaho Public Utility Commission approved a similar 2008 rate hike, which took effect on Oct. 1. To date there has been no appeal. The commission has seven months to review Avista’s latest rate hike proposal.
The Washington appeal includes questions about many issues, including charging ratepayers for charitable and advertising costs; and Avista’s plan to charge ratepayers the $168 million the utility agreed to pay the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in compensation for illegally storing water for hydropower generation on the tribe’s submerged land in Lake Coeur d’Alene. Payable over the next 50 years, the current rate hike reflects the payment of $39 million toward the lawsuit.
The second rate hike protest came from a much different source. Spokane resident Jenna Cassidy was shocked when her January bill was up $70 from December. After talking to others and realizing the anger over the rate increase was widespread, the Washington State University student, and young mother, decided to organize a protest against the rate hike request.
The peaceful protest, being held to draw attention to the plight of families struggling to pay their power bills each month, will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, outside Avista Corporation headquarters, at 1411 E. Mission Ave., in Spokane.
Although Cassidy is directing her protest toward Washington regulators, she says she has been contacted by many Idaho residents and has hopes Idaho officials will take a harder look at the rate increases if Idahoans participate in the protest.
Cassidy’s protest is well-timed. Avista’s continuing rate hikes during a faltering economy leave some customers with little choice but to choose between heat and other necessities.
“I can’t believe how many people are coming into the food bank because of energy costs,” said Cathy Larson, manager of the Post Falls Food Bank. She says people are paying their heat bills, and then can’t afford food.
Rathdrum reports they are receiving many more requests as well. Requests for everything, including food, rent and help with heat.
All requests for energy assistance are referred to the Kootenai County United Way Community Assistance Partnership, the agency responsible for administering the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“The need is definitely greater this year,” said Mark Haberman, community outreach and assistance manager for the agency. But there is also more funding for the program that assists clients in keeping their households warm and safe during the cold winter months, he said.
“Some of the money that went to bail out Wall Street last year, ended up in local weatherization and energy assistance programs due in part to the fact that energy costs continue to rise and increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in need,” said Haberman.
According to the latest figures, $1,042,693 has been applied directly to the heating costs of 2,234 families through the program.
The Community Partnership also administers funds collected by Avista’s Project Share and Kootenai Electric’s Operation Roundup. The aim of these funds is to keep the utilities on for families who have received a disconnect notice.
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