Several hundred irritated members of the Tri-County Electric Cooperative - which serves about 3,300 consumers in Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William Counties - are looking for answers to explain what they call excessively high electric bill.
In a series of five meetings between the co-op's management and several hundred co-op members during the past six week, "consumers have received nothing but unsatisfactory answers to why we are paying so much more than anybody else," said Wayne Bevan, a Tri-County Co-op member who lives near Leesburg.
In a special forum two weeks ago, he and more than 130 co-op members questioned the co-op's six-man board of directors and general managers Benjamin M. Schafer about the pass-along fuel adjustment charge, rate schedules and co-op management practices that many members claimed contributed to the cost of their electric bills.
Some brought their bills for January, the month co-op members saw the highest increases. One comparison showed that for 4,020 kilowatt hours used the Tri-County bill was $209,89, while a Vepco bill for roughly the same billing period covering 5,190 kilowatt hours was $150.66.
According to State Corporation Commission engineer Dan Hobbs, Tri-County's high electric bills this winter in a large part were caused by the immediate reflection of fuel adjustment charges on consumer bills. The fuel adjustment charge is the cost to produce electricity that producers like Vepco are allowed to pass on to their customers. Tri-County is a wholesale customer of Vepco.
For co-op customers the adjustment charge is noted on consumers' monthly bills, Hobbs said. But there is at least a two-month lag before the full effect of the adjustment charge - a high one with winter's severe cold - shows up on the bills of Vepco's retail customers. Higher fuel adjustment charges this winter also resulted from the shutdown of Vepco's two nuclear plants at Surrey, Va., which forced Vepco to use more expensive electricity-producing sources, the company has said.
"Vepco's and Tri-County's base rates are actually fairly competitive," Hobbs said. "But the different methods of computing the fuel adjustment charge made Tri-County's bills this winter seem unfairly high."
Members at one point during the forum, frustrated over what they said was the board of directors' "inability or disinterest to seek out ways to reduce electric rates" suggested that the co-op disband and its customers buy directly from Vepco.
Their frustration also caused them to lash out against a more tangible target than the complex nature of fuel adjustment charges - management practices.
The members questioned, among other things, the right of co-op directors to have travel expenses paid when they attended regional and national electric cooperative conventions and to be covered with hospitaliziation insurance from co-op funds. They also questioned manager Schafer's rent-free residence on the top floor of the co-op headquarters in Leesburg and his hiring of his two sons to paint co-op property.
Schafer admitted the painting job contract was not advertised, but said his sons "could do the lob for less than the one other bid I received."
Other co-op members, meanwhile, called focusing on management practices "nitpicking" and claimed the real problem with high electric rates was "a lot bigger and a lot more vague."
Thomas P. Messier, chairman of the Tri-County Electric Cooperative, countered by teling the audience "you're looking for a culprit, where it's very difficult to pinpoint one. The fact is, the cost of all resources is on the upswing. We've just begun to see dramatic increases in the cost of electricity, and there are going to be more. It's going to go up and up and up."