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Energy Bill Stalls Over Aid to Poor

Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said her committee will try to resolve concerns about the energy bill next month.
Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said her committee will try to resolve concerns about the energy bill next month. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh delayed a committee vote on an energy bill yesterday because of concerns that low-income residents, already struggling to pay utilities and rent, could be hurt financially by some parts of the comprehensive legislation.

The Clean and Affordable Energy Act would revamp the way consumers get energy and would create a sustainable utility to oversee it all. The bill would require a gradual increase in the energy produced by alternative methods such as solar power so that by 2020, at least one-fifth of energy would come from renewable sources.

Electric company Pepco, however, contends that the legislation could wipe out funds used to help about 19,000 low-income residents pay utility bills. Meanwhile, council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said they were apprehensive about the legislation's legalization of sub-meters -- meters generally located inside buildings that would allow landlords to charge tenants separately for utilities.

The District and Mississippi are the nation's only jurisdictions that prohibit sub-meters, said Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, which met yesterday.

Sub-meters, she said, encourage tenants to conserve energy because they are responsible for the bill.

But Graham said tenants in rent-controlled apartment buildings should be better informed about the sub-meter legalization proposal that was added to the bill. He wanted to remove it from the bill and have a hearing. Brown argued that the sub-meters also could harm small-business owners leasing units in large buildings.

The debate within the committee, which includes Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), finally ended when Cheh realized she had the authority as chairman to simply withdraw the bill from consideration.

She said she would put the bill on the committee's agenda for a June 2 markup in time for the legislation to get a first and second reading in the full council before its summer recess in July. In the meantime, she said, she would weigh her colleagues' concerns.

Thomas H. Graham, president of Pepco Region, said the postponement is appropriate. "There's a lot of issues that need to be clarified," he said.

Graham said the legislation could reduce the amount of assistance paid to low-income residents from $12 million to $3 million. Cheh's staff said that more than $6 million for direct assistance with utility bills would remain in place and that another $6 million, used for preventive measures such as weatherization, would go to the sustainable energy utility. The utility is supposed to be in place within two years if the legislation passes.

Pepco is concerned about more than poor residents. The company, according to letters it sent to council members, also objects to, among other issues, the sustainable energy utility, which it says would duplicate services Pepco provides.

"They are misleading the public [about utility assistance] in an effort to kill the bill," Cheh said of Pepco in an interview.

Shaun Pharr, senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association, said he was disappointed that the sub-metering issue appeared to stop the bill from getting out of committee. The association approached Cheh with the idea after she introduced her legislation as a way for residents to save even more energy, he said.

"The rent control issue that was raised . . . is a complete red herring," he said.

Under rent control laws, a landlord would have to go through a "reduction of services" hearing before installing sub-meters, Pharr said. Rents would be reduced to balance the utilities, he said.

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