By Paul J. Nyden
State Treasurer John Perdue said Wednesday he wants the state Public Service Commission to freeze utility rates for the rest of the year.
Perdue, who is running for governor, wants West Virginia residents to sign petitions asking the PSC to freeze rates people pay to electricity, water and natural gas companies.
At a Wednesday press conference outside the PSC office in downtown Charleston, Perdue said the PSC should reject a rate increase of 8.9 percent requested by American Electric Power. (That request is separate from a rate increase the PSC was scheduled to rule on late Wednesday.)
If the PSC approves AEP's latest request, the company's West Virginia customers will be paying $131.60 for every $100 they paid AEP in 2008, Perdue said.
"As I travel around the state," Perdue said, "it is clear that utility rate increases are hurting just about everyone, including our seniors and small-business owners."
Perdue said he recently "asked acting governor [Earl Ray] Tomblin to intervene on behalf of West Virginia customers. Yet he has done nothing."
The PSC must still approve any intervention requests made by a governor. Tomblin and Perdue are among six Democrats running in the May 17 primary.
After the PSC approved a 3.5 percent rate increase for West Virginia American Water in 2009, the water company also is now asking the PSC to approve a new increase of 15.1 percent in water prices.
Perdue wants the PSC to freeze utility rates until Jan. 1, 2012, when he can propose new regulatory legislation if he wins the governor's race.
"While AEP says it needs more money," Perdue said, "they made a $1.2 billion profit last year and increased their CEO's salary from $7.5 million to $9 million."
Mark Dempsey, Appalachian Power's vice president for external affairs, defended the company's request for a new rate increase in a letter he sent Perdue on Monday.
Nationally, the average residential rate is 11 cents for each kilowatt-hour of electricity.
"Appalachian Power's rates are well below that national average for residential power, even with pending rate increases," Dempsey said.
The current rate in West Virginia, which is 9.1 cents per kilowatt-hour, would increase to 9.8 cents per kilowatt-hour if the PSC approves AEP's latest request, Dempsey wrote.
"When a [private] company prices itself out of the market," Perdue said, "that company goes out of business -- unless it is a utility."
Perdue said he is concerned about people like Delores, a Nitro resident, who recently sent him a letter.
"I am on Social Security. I don't have a huge monthly check and I don't have medical insurance," Delores wrote.
"The PSC gives them everything they want," she wrote. "If you keep on these people, I will greatly appreciate it and so will everyone else."