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Rate Hike: Chamber leaders say, â??Thank you, sir. May I have another?'

Public doesn't assume the position as gracefully

Greg Harman

If anything was learned during the hours of citizens' comments at this morning's vote to raise electric and gas rates for CPS Energy customers, it's that the local chambers of commerce are still doggedly devoted to their hometown utility.

Despite their unanimous support of CPS Energy's plans to dive deeply into the nuke-expansion plans at the South Texas Project nuclear facility with partner NRG Energy â?? a loyalty that was paid back by the utility with months of deception as to the ultimate price of that project â?? they returned this morning with love and devotion for CPS.

Peppering a stream of voices raised against the hike, the chambers (Greater San, North San, South San, Hispanic, and Black) stood out like beads of oil riding the waves of protest.

The contrast was so stark that even Councilmember Justin Rodriquez, who, like most of his colleagues, cast the hike as an unwelcome but necessary “root canal,” teased the handful of suits testifying: “No one wants a root canal, except for our friends at the chambers of commerce.”

It was a well-timed moment of humor to diffuse a tense morning wherein dozens of residents lobbied against the new rates â?? some in the flesh, others via a video presentation made by members of the Southwest Workers Union.

But the concerns of those speaking against the 7.5- percent and 8.5-percent increase in electric and gas rates ranged from those on the edge of poverty to the moral implications of nuclear waste (despite settling with NRG, CPS remains a 7-percent partner in the proposed two-reactor expansion) to a widespread distrust of CPS to use the money how is says it will.

Despite promises of raising investment in green initiatives to $136 million over four years at the 2008 rate hike, the utility only used $3 million before shuttering several incentive programs for green-energy rebates.

Interim General Manager Jelynne LeBlanc-Burley blamed that on the Council's reduction of the rate increase from the desired 5-percent to 3.5-percent. However, in a summary lecture that closed the debate, Mayor Julián Castro pointed out the program reductions still represented a business decision within CPS. He lamented, “Sustainability has only recently been seriously considered” by CPS.

While assistance to the Residential Energy Assistance Program is being doubled to $2 million per year to help those most at risk from having their power cut off, several wondered if that was enough. Others advocated implementation of a tiered rate structure that would grant lower energy users lower rates and encourage overall energy conservation.

Most public speakers seemed to agree CPS needed a truly independent audit and better oversight to make sure new monies weren't misspent.

Councilman Reed Williams countered that current oversight is sufficient when he waved a CPS line-item budget and said, “This, folks, is the bible. This is where it is going.”

It was just this line-by-line information Karen Hadden, director of the SEED Coalition, had been seeking (and been denied) from CPS staffers â?? leading to another barb from Castro for Burley.

“I do believe we need to have a detailed budget on the Internet and we need to make it readily available,” Castro said to loud applause. “The document that Councilman Williams has, that should be made available. â?¦ We have to distill out what really is competitive. First of all, who are we competing against if we're a monopoly?”

CPS regularly uses the excuse that certain information is “competitive” to deny public-record requests from the Current. It's an argument that has resonated with the Texas Attorney General's office despite complaints from the paper.

“That culture just can't stand,” Castro said. “There are still changes that need to be made.”

But the unanimous Council approval suggests those changes won't come at the expense of delaying the completion of the Spruce Two coal plant or the start of a new phase of sub-station construction, two projects the new revenue stream is to be used for.

Given yesterday's settlement with NRG Energy, which stops all future payment from San Antonio for the development of proposed Units 3 & 4 at STP, not all local activists were sure what they felt about the rate hike. However, Alice Canestaro-Garcia of Energía Mía has decided to keep the anti-nuclear campaign in Castro's face until the city fully divests itself from the project.

Until the city gets serious about decentralized energy, some San Antonians will keep turning off their power in protest.

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