TAMPA — A small crowd of Tampa Electric customers voiced opposition Wednesday night to a $135 million rate hike the utility proposes to add to bills, criticizing the increase as a reward for at-times-poor service and a threat to school budgets.
The crowd of several dozen at Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry campus raised concerns to members of the state Public Service Commission, who came to hear Tampa Electric's customers views of the rate hike, which would take effect Jan. 1.
"They are in essence asking for a raise," said Bob Joyce, a 21-year resident of Avila, which he said has for decades endured power outages for seemingly no reason. "If they were in the private sector, they wouldn't get a raise, they would get fired."
MaryEllen Elia, the Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent, told the PSC that the proposed rate hike would add $2.3 million to the school system's $38 million annual electric bill.
"That has to come out of our operating budget," Elia said. "It would be the equivalent of not being able to do a major renovation project on an elementary school."
Wednesday's meeting was the first of two public hearings on Tampa Electric's proposal. Another is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at the Chain O'Lakes Complex in Winter Haven.
Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of TECO Energy, wants to raise residential rates for the average customer $10.41 a month.
The utility also wants to bump up what its commercial and industrial customers pay by 6 percent.
The rate hike is needed to offset rising costs and sluggish growth, the utility said.
The PSC must approve the proposed rate hike, which would increase the average residential customer's bill from $102.58 per 1,000 kilowatt hours of usage a month to about $113. That would allow TECO to maintain an 11.25 percent return.
"We believe that is extremely, extremely excessive," J.R. Kelly, the state public counsel who represents consumers before the PSC, said during the hearing.
Kelly's office also is reviewing the impact, if any, of TECO's purchase announced a day before Wednesday's hearing of the New Mexico Gas Co. for $950 million.
Cherie Jacobs, a TECO Energy spokeswoman, said the purchase is not related to the proposed rate increase. "For the foreseeable future, our customers here won't see any impact."
Karen Lewis, Tampa Electric's director of customer service, said during the hearing that the increase is needed to cover such expenses as new power lines, power plant improvements and other projects to ensure safe and reliable service.
"It's never a good time to raise rates," Lewis said. "But even with the proposed increase, Tampa Electric will remain among the lowest in the state in regard to its rates."
The request comes on the heels of a $350 million rate increase approved last year for the state's largest investor-owned utility, Florida Power & Light, which serves South Florida.
Even with the $11 increase, Tampa Electric's rates would remain below the rates for Duke Energy. Duke's rates stand at $116.06 per 1,000 kilowatt hours.
Duke cannot request an increase in base rates for 2014 because of a rate settlement agreement that lasts through 2016. But other adjustments higher or lower can be made as a result of changes in fuel prices and other expenses.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.