‘It’s not right’: Aniak residents share pain of spiking power bills with regulators

Aniak from the air (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

When the Regulatory Commission of Alaska opened the floor to public comment on utilities at its bi-weekly public meeting on Wednesday, residents of Aniak — who saw their power costs quadruple last month — had plenty to say.

More than 30 Aniak community members, including elders, teenagers, a Calista Corp. representative, business owners and teachers, spoke about the hardship caused by the jump in their power bills from Aniak Light & Power Company. Bills often exceeded $1,000 per household for the month of May.

The comments from the public were intense. Two members of the commission, which regulates public utilities, called them compelling.

Resident Roxanne Evan told the commission that she has considered moving.

“But who’s going to buy my house with the exorbitant costs of living out here?” she said. “I pay a mortgage every month.”

Resident Adrian Bowens added that she was afraid of costs come winter.

I know I’m gonna have to make hard decisions,” Bowens said. “Am I going to buy groceries this year, this month? Or am I going to pay my $1,200 light bill? I double think every time I use my ovens now, when I take a shower. I don’t want to plug my coil stove in for heat.”

Residents also mentioned the rate hike’s impact on elders with fixed incomes, on their subsistence lifestyle and on mental and physical health. They said they felt their concerns had been sidelined because of their remote location as well as their race.

“Everything is gonna go up. We’re literally destroying Alaskan villages,” said resident Rachel Youngblood. “And I’m gonna say it. I feel that nobody cares. The bottom line is that the people living in the villages are (Alaska) Native, continuously to be underserved, and nobody pays attention to them. And it’s not right.”

After over an hour and a half of comments, RCA Commissioner Bob Pickett had a comment of his own.

“I appreciate everyone from Aniak taking the time. It’s a very compelling story,” Pickett said on the call. “And I will be supporting a management practices investigation of the utility with the certificate being on the line. We have not heard from the utility at this point.”

Aniak Light & Power’s president, Darlene Holmberg, subsequently spoke with KYUK about the controversy.

“I have asked the state if there’s an option that would have served better,” Holmberg said. “And they’ve kind of indicated there is, but they have not handed me any options.”

Holmberg said that she is hoping the commission can help turn around the price hikes that have rocked her community.

“It’s horrible. I couldn’t, I was mortified,” Holmberg said. “I was certain I was wrong. And I submitted it to the state because I couldn’t find an error. And they proved it. So I’m hoping that they can come along and say there is another method and approved methodology.”

Pickett outlined the next steps. He said that RCA won’t make a decision without working with the utility, and they’ll need to bring in commission staff and administrative law judges, which are independent adjudicators often used for regulatory matters.

“We’ve only had a couple of these types of investigations and they can be quite brutal, quite frankly. One was in Aniak, another one in Egegik,” Pickett said. “And at the end of the day, if the commission does find that the utility is not willing and able under its certificate of public convenience and necessity, you’ve got to figure who is going to do it then.”

RCA spokesman Steven Jones said that the commission will consult with an administrative law judge about the next steps to look into Aniak Light & Power’s management practice.

They look at a number of things to determine whether it’s — does it require an onsite visit? Does it require testimony?” Jones said. Does it require witnesses or experts, or there’s a variety of things that they have more power to call upon than the consumer protection section would be able to do?”

Jones also said that the commission will be considering some of the issues brought up.

“There was a number of people that expressed questions to the commission such as the adjustment, or record keeping, or age of infrastructure and so on,” said Jones.

Jones explained that there are different types of investigations depending on the issue.

“Whether it be billing practices, or management practices, or rates, charges, all of those things fall under their tariff. And so if there’s one that they believe that may need further investigation, they narrowed down the topic. In this case, [Pickett] believed it to be management practices,” Jones said. “Typically, management practices take on a higher level of the commission because it’s not something as clearly defined as, say, a rate page might have the numbers on it. Whereas a management decision may not be clearly written or not spelled out, or just needs further investigation because it was interpreted a different way.”

This week, residents learned prices have been pushed up by another 13%.

The regulatory commission has told Aniak Light & Power that the company has to file with it more frequently because of the current price surges.

Jones said that the utility made a filing to reduce its rates on June 28. If approved, the change would bring power costs down about 10% from their current levels.

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