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AARP Wyoming Helps Cut Electricity Rate Hike

For the second time in two years, a proposed increase in electric rates for Rocky Mountain Power customers in Wyoming has been reduced – this time by more than half.

A settlement agreement proposed in June and agreed to by the Wyoming Public Service Commission will put in place a series of lower increases to Wyoming customers starting September 22. Residential customers will pay an average of $6 more a month, depending on usage. Under the original request, residents would have paid an average of $15 a month on top of what they’re paying now.

AARP Wyoming Director Tim Summers said he’s pleased that so many Rocky Mountain Power customers took the time to share their opinions of the requested increase with state regulators because their voices made such a difference.

“We know that this major increase would have affected many, many people in the state – people over 65, small business owners and people who already are having a hard time making ends meet,” he said.

The AARP Wyoming office intervened in the case on behalf of residents and small businesses throughout the state. It joined other organizations, such as the Wyoming Industrial Energy Consumers, the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate and the City of Casper among others, to oppose the increase.

To make its case for its members for the June hearing, AARP pulled together a team of national experts on utility issues to lend their expertise and testify in front of the Public Service Commission about the requested rate increase and hired a Wyoming attorney to intervene on behalf of residential and small business customers.

In this case, Rocky Mountain Power initially proposed requesting $97.9 million from Wyoming ratepayers in a request filed in November 2010. Rocky Mountain Power officials said they were seeking the increase to pay for system improvements driven by increasing demand and to meet the rising costs of serving customers in Wyoming, which is one of the fastest-growing states in its service region. While these system increases will benefit customers in all six states, Wyoming ratepayers were asked to pay only for the Wyoming share.

“We have to build some things to meet the desires of our customers, and the price was set to support those costs,” Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelson said. Eskelson said his company will bring future requests for increases over the next few years, even perhaps over the next decade.

During the months leading up to the June hearing, Rocky Mountain Power lowered its requested increase to about $80 million, but AARP and the other organizations that intervened in the case continued to work to cut the rate increase.

Rocky Mountain Power serves thousands of residential, business, commercial and industrial customers across Wyoming and in five other states.

Since 2003, AARP Wyoming and other large utility consumer groups have reduced potential utility rate hikes by more than $200 million. On behalf of its members50+ consumers, AARP has worked on telephone, natural gas and electricity issues throughout the state.

“We hope our members and other residents of this state will continue to speak up when they have the chance on issues that are important to them,” Summers said. “It’s important that regulators and lawmakers hear their stories.”

The plan for the ADRC also calls for outreach through the state’s service providing agencies via a system of VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones that clients could use to speak to and see the ADRC’s intake staff. Walter said that’s likely to come later; the VOIP phones cost $500 each.

Another piece under development, Walter said, is a searchable informational Web site. When it’s up and running, she added, it will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Because Wyoming is a large, sparsely populated state, not all services are available in every community. Center staff strives to make the most efficient use of their clients’ time, she said. “We might not be able to offer a local resource, but it will be the closest resource.”

One of the key resources that center staff has at its command is a database of all service providers – more than 7,000 federal and state agencies – that can provide some help and support. Work is now under way to complete that database using the same software that other agencies use to ensure easy access.

A pilot ADRC project in Natrona and Converse counties for residents of those counties closed its doors on April 1, 2009. But since the statewide initiative opened its virtual doors on March 14, more than 600 people from across Wyoming have called looking for help and information through mid-June, the most recent period for which information is available, Walter said.

The project is staffed by Southwest Wyoming Recovery Access Programs, which was one of three organizations that responded to the Health Department’s request for proposals. SW WRAP staff answers calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Callers can leave a message at other times and will get a call back on the next working day.

Walter said the program is also partnering with Wyoming 211, a free and confidential referral system in Wyoming for health and human services information that launched in February. Calls received through that program will be routed to ADRC staff.

Walter said her 500-page report was worth the effort she put into it. Funding for the third year of the cycle depends on that report, which focused on the program’s sustainability. The only thing missing, she was told, was a pair of timelines. But overall, it was such a success that the Administration on Aging may require other states to include some of the same information, she said.

The Wyoming Aging and Disabilities Resource Center can be reached at 1-877-435-7851.