TAMPA — State utility regulators are scheduled to meet here today, and Wofford Johnson can't wait to let them know just what he thinks of Tampa Electric's plans to raise its base rates by 18 percent.
"There are a lot of people out there who can't absorb that kind of increase," said Johnson, president of a group that represents all of the city's neighborhood associations.
The rate hike would add about $12 a month to an average homeowner's bill, Tampa Electric says.
Today's hearing in Tampa and another one Wednesday in Winter Haven provide the only opportunity for Tampa Electric customers to directly address the Public Service Commission on the issue.
Among those who also say they'll share opinions at the hearing: Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena and Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
"With all our facilities and all our schools, we use a great deal of energy," said school district spokesman Steve Hegarty. "We work hard to conserve energy, and we would welcome greater incentives for our conservation efforts."
Kirsten Olsen, a spokeswoman for the PSC, said commissioners want customers to share specific information about the utility.
"In order for them to get a base rate hike, they have to be providing good customer service," she said. "We want people, if they can take time, to share their experiences with the company. Good and bad."
Tampa Electric officials argue that they haven't raised base rates in 16 years, and they need the increase to cover costs and boost returns on investments.
Tampa Electric spokesman Rick Morera said since the current rate was set in 1992, Tampa Electric has spent billions of dollars on upgrades to the system without recouping any of those costs through rates.
"Customers and folks are going to be against any increases in these tough economic times, and we certainly understand that," he said. "It just got to the point where we had to ask for a base rate increase."
The company also wants to increase the rate it charges to customers to pay for fuel. Tampa Electric originally requested fuel and base rate increases that combined would bump up monthly bills by 31 percent. But last week, the utility scaled back its request for the fuel component because fuel prices have fallen.
That reduced the combined rate hike request to 21 percent.
"It's better, but it's still too much," Saul-Sena said. "If they've waited all this time, they certainly picked an inopportune time to ask. I can't think of a time in memory where average people have been so economically pressed."
At a council meeting last week, Saul-Sena persuaded her colleagues to pass a resolution officially opposing the rate hike.
Only council member John Dingfelder voted against the resolution, saying he didn't know enough to decide that the increase isn't truly necessary.
Saul-Sena has no such qualms.
She notes that many costs incurred by the company — such as fuel, cleanup after storms and investments in environmental and conservation programs — are routinely passed on to customers or offset by federal incentives.
The company, she said, should be less interested in profits and put more of an emphasis on investing in renewable energy.
"Big picture, it's a question of what are the responsibilities of the energy utility toward the community," she said.
"I believe that their responsibilities to the community are to not maximize their profit, but to protect the local citizens by not charging them exorbitant rates and thinking long-term about creating a less carbon-intensive energy system."
After this week's public hearings, anyone who wants to testify before the PSC will have to file a formal petition to intervene in the base rate case and attend numerous hearings in Tallahassee in January.
The commission will vote on the issue in April, with new rates going into effect in May.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.