In protest of what they termed " unreasonable" electric bills, 300 irate Prince William County and Manassas city residents showed up at a special forum last week.

Carrying charts, electric bills and lengthy diagrams illustrating their increasing utilities costs, the Mannassas residents questioned representatives from the Mannassas Electric Company, Prince William Electric Co-op, Vepco, the Federal Power Commission and Rep. Herb Harris (D-Va.) for three hours about why their bills are considerably higher than their neighbors who buy directly from Vepco.

A city ordinance passed in 1913 allows the city of Manassas to be the sole distributor of electricity to city residents. Prince William County Electric Co-op as well. Both Manassas and the Co-op buy from Vepco at a wholesale price.

What started out as an orderly town gathering at 8 p.m. quickly became an emotional and heated exchange between citizens and officials. Harris, who tried to set the tone for the meeting, was more of a referee than a moderator.

"That's a crock!" and "Bull!" were the more common outbursts from members of the audience.

The meeting was orchestrated by Harris at the request of Manassass Mayor Harry J. Parrish, and in response to the increasing number of calls coming into the congressman's office protesting high electric bills!

Harris ran a column in the Manassas Journal Messenger in February requesting area residents send him records of their increased utility costs over the past year. The result was about 250 letters indicating large increases in electric bills despite efforts at conservation.

All who responded claimed they kept their thermostats no higher than 65 degrees last winter and many kept it as low a 56 degrees at night. Still everyone who responded had higher bills this year.

The Boyds and the Casolis, who sat in the front row during the meeting, are neighbors in Manassas. Neither let the thermostat go above 65 degrees this winter and both tried to use as few rooms as possible, they said. Although both families have added extra insulation to their homes, they say their electric bills have increased 100 per cent this year, far exceeding their mortgage payments.

"I really don't know what to do anymore," said Mrs. Boyd, who works for the Prince William schools. "I had to borrow against my credit union to pay this month's bills."

According to a chart prepared by Harris's staff, Vepco customers pay approximately $70 less per 6000 kilowatt hours than those who receive electricity from Manassas. An average all-electric home uses from 6,000 kwh, to 10,000 kwh, per month.

William Berry, senior vice president of commercial operations at Vepco, explained the price disparity in terms of the fuel adjustment cost.

The fuel adjustment cost is that part of the electric bill that reflects the increasing cost of fuel. Berry said that the Federal Power Commission requires Vepco to pass on a one-month fuel adjustment cost average to their wholesale customers, such as the city of Manassas.

On the other hand, according to Berry, Vepco's retail customers, or private homes, receive a three-month fuel adjustment cost average. Therefore, he said, while Manassas and Prince William Co-op customers are feeling the fuel cost increase immediately, Vepco customers have yet to see their big bills.

By far the greatest pressure for explanation fell on Manassas Mayor Harry Parrish, who was called upon to account for the extra money Manassas citizens are paying for their fuel.

Parrish had no explanation other than Vepco's adjustment charge and the fact that it costs the city approximately $65,000 to operate and maintain the electric company.

"You're evading the question!" was the outburst from several men and women in the audience, causing Harris to intervene and call for order.

A major question brought up at the end of the meeting was why Manassas people are not able to buy directly from Vepco, thus eliminating the city as middleman.

According to Parrish, Vepco has tried to buy out the city's electric company on several occasions, offering as high as $5 million for the system.

"As sure as I'm standing herre Vepco could not do it any cheaper than we're doing it right now," affirmed Parrish. "In order to get their investment return, Vepco would end up charging just as much, if not more than we do now."

After attempting to answer as many questions as possible, Harris finally brought the meeting to an end by asking for volunteers for an "advisory committee."

Harris says he plans on meeting with about five people who geographically represent the area over the next few weeks.

"We have three utilities companies servicing one small area," said Harris. "In some cases, people using different companies live across the street from one another. Hopefully, we'll be able to determine what policies will best achieve equilization of rates."