Many senior citizens on fixed pensions in Western Maryland received electric bills last week that were higher than their total income, the Maryland Public Service Commission was told yesterday.
Homer Berry, 67, of Cumberland, was one of a dozen citizens who testified at a crowded special commission hearing on ways to ease the burden of unprecedented electric bills from the Potomac Edison Co., which was heavily effected by the recent coal strike.
"We're being taken advantage of," said Berry, regional chairman of the National Association of Retired Persons. Electric bills to many of the area's 40,000 senior citizens, he said, range from $351 to $727 for two months' service in all-electric homes.
Maryland's People's Counsel Jack Keane rejuested the hearing last week after Potomac Edison's 55,000 Maryland customers expressed outrage over bills that the company said were a product of the nationwide coal strike. About 80 persons, many with small children in tow, crowded the hearing room to ask for help in paying their bills and to attack the fuel adjustment section of the bill where the increase was most evident.
The company was unable to obtain coal to generate electricity at its usual low rates, utility vice president Robert B. Murdock told the three-member commission, and had to buy "massive amounts of power," up to 60 percent of its total output, from other companies.
"It's not the design of the fuel adjustment clause that is at fault," he said. Shouts of "nuts" and obscenities rang out from the audience.
Keane's formal compalint to the commission asked that the fuel adjustment clause be modified to impose a ceiling on the amount of electric company can collect in any one month. He asked that all possible costs be deferred as long as possible and that only fuel cost sand not the total cost of purchased power be passed to customers.
Potomac Edison objected, saying the current structure of the fuel adjustment clause has already been subject of court tests and expensive hearings.
Underestimates of costs in January, Keane said, were added to the March bills at a rate of nearly one cent per kilowott hour of usage.A kilowatt hour is the amount of electricity used by ten 100-watt electric bulbs burning for one hour.
A Western Maryland home using 6,000 kilowatt hours thus paid $60 more than otherwise, he said, adding that the fuel adjustment rule should be changed to prohibit that.
"The commission is quite sympathetic to the problems of these people," Commission Chairman William S. Baldwin said at the end of the day. He promised "some way to try to give some relief" and urged attorneys for both sides to produce a joint proposal when the hearing resumes at 10 a.m. Thursday with the company's side of the story.
Most of the testimony stressed that high bills have been incurred in spite of vigorous efforts to conserve enegy. "People are about ready to hang me," said former homebuilder James W. Grove of Hagerstown.
He said the houses he built in the early 1960s had insulation considered more than adequate at the time, but his bill, which said was typical, has risen 300 percent over 1968 levels. He said his consumption of electricity had doubled in that decade.
The commission ordered Potomac Edison to conduct a special inquiry into the cause of extraordinarily high usage at the Poolesville home of Paula Summers, whose two-month bill was $818 for 16,142 kilowatt hours. She had not asked for an analysis of her problem earlier, Summers said, because "it's a waste of time."
Sylvia Hancock, head of the Organization For Consumer Justice that has been fighting Potomac Edison since 1975 in rate cases from Allegheny, Washington and Frederick counties, asked the commission to investigate whether Potomac Edison had made "every possible effort" to reduce fuel costs before and during the coal strike.
"The consumers should be provided some sort of assurance that the bill is going to remain constant over some period of time," said Philip Harris, a town commissioners from Poolesville. "People have budgets they have to live on."
Susan Whittington of Hagerstown, recounting her two-months' bill of $388.44 for 8,809 kilowatt hours, told the commission she was doing everything possible to conserve energy. "The only thing more I can do is pull the main switch," she said.