A Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. request for a $54.5 million rate increase came under sharp attack last night from a D.C. City Council member and a number of elderly city residents who complained bitterly that higher rates would deprive them of phone service.
The comments were made at a public hearing before the D.C. Public Service Commission, which also was sharply criticized for its handling of the case. The PSC held an initial hearing on the matter in April but scheduled last night's session only after being heavily pressured by the City Council and consumer advocates to do so.
Urging denial of the rate hike, council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) chided the commission for what she called "its profound disrespect for the community," and added: "I have observed, as a lawyer, an elected public official and customer of the telephone company, an unwillingness to allow the customer to express an opinion in the underlying policy questions and issues that surround this case and prior cases."
Rolark said the commission had failed to direct C&P to supply notification in its phone bill inserts about how the brunt of the increase would fall on basic telephone subscribers. "C&P's request would translate into an increase for residential customers of 88 percent to 210 percent," she said.
The C&P request of $54.5 million would nearly double the cost of residential unlimited calling service. C&P contends that the increase is necessary to meet its authorized rate of return of 12.25 percent and to make up for long distance subsidies it lost in the Bell System breakup last year.
Under the proposal, C&P would charge a fee for a dial tone separate from usage, requiring residential customers to pay $13.42 a month to be hooked into the system -- a highly controversial request that has repeatedly drawn criticism from consumer advocates. The company would charge an additional $10.12 a month for usage, boosting unlimited monthly calling to $23.54 a month from $12.49 a month.
The PSC is expected to decide next month whether to grant the rate request.
Joining Rolark and some senior citizens protesting the rate increase was Democratic State Committee member Mark Plotkin, who said the committee voted Wednesday to oppose the request. "This is the first time the committee has taken a formal position" on the request, he said.
Orhan S. Ozdemir, a 70-year-old city resident, told the commission, "Ever since the divestiture, my phone bill has been going up steadily . . . . I would hate to think that senior citizens are discriminated against in favor of the commercial" customers.
Many consumer advocates are angry because a rate case involving Centrex business rates was decided without a public hearing last April. The PSC allowed C&P to offer the service at a 20 to 30 percent discount, freezing rates for large customers for five years to make Centrex competitive with other telecommunications technologies.
"Because the PSC lowered Centrex rates . . . there is no place left to put rates but on the basic subscribers who can ill afford it," said advisory neighborhood commissioner Christine M. Viezens.