BENTON TOWNSHIP — J.B. Hoyt is not too impressed with the proposed rate increase that Indiana Michigan Power submitted to the state earlier this year.

That’s why Hoyt, along with about three dozen other Southwest Michigan residents, gathered for an Oct. 7 public forum to discuss the utility company’s rate hike request and what plans I& M has for meeting the electrical needs of the region.

The Michigan Public Service Commission led the forum, held at the Blue Lecture Hall on Lake Michigan College’s campus in Benton Township. The hearing gave I& M customers, who number about 129,000 in Michigan, a chance to speak with commissioners and MPSC staff.

I& M filed its plan with the MPSC detailing $478 million in hoped-for infrastructure improvements to the Cook Nuclear Plant, along with replacing more than 1,200 poles, 40 miles of wire and other equipment, and updating the energy grid with high-tech equipment to cut down on outages.

Under I& M’s proposal, costs for average customers would increase about $36 a month ($132.84 to $168.87, for average customers). This would be a roughly 27 percent increase, which includes a planned monthly service fee increase (the proposed base rate would increase nearly 19 percent).

Hoyt, a Lincoln Township resident, said the commission should look at I& M’s business model with scrutiny to ensure the request is cost effective.

“They are asking for their second rate in three years,” Hoyt said. “I applaud them for being proactive. But should this proposed rate increase be granted, we’re looking at a (combined) 40 percent increase over three years.”

The previous rate increase Hoyt referred to is the 17.9 percent increase for I& M customers approved by the MPSC in the spring of 2018.

The 2018 hike was the utility’s first electric rate increase in more than six years.

According to Herald-Palladium archives, that 2018 increase was about 20 percent less than I& M originally sought.

Among those in attendance at Monday’s forum was Benton Township resident Cathy Yates.

Yates, who now serves as a Benton Township trustee, recalled some of the utility bill hardships she came across when she was a social worker.

In her experience, Yates said she regularly interacted with residents who at times struggled to keep the lights on. She said what she is most against is how residents are getting hit with two hefty rate increases within three years.

Yates said I& M should have created a five- to 10year plan to give families and homeowners a way to cope and adjust with the proposed increase.

“I fought hard to keep them warm in the winter and the lights on in the summer. But the state would run out of money so it became more difficult,” Yates said of her time in social work. “I’m not saying it is not needed. I’m saying the timing is not right.”

While a lot of the attendees spoke of the trouble they’ve run into in paying for single-home electric bills, business owners spoke up about the difficulties that the proposed increase would bring.

Tom Jennings, owner of the 505 Building in downtown St. Joseph, said the building’s utility bill has gone from an average cost of $4,500 to as high as $6,500 a month. It’s Jennings who pays, but he later divides the cost between other tenants of the building.

“Another 20 percent increase would takes us to more than $8,000,” Jennings said. “Sometimes, if we get a bill of $6,500, I’ll take between $800 and $1,200, and just eat it. I think they (the tenants) would be livid.”

MPSC staff gave a presentation on the integrated resource planning process and highlights of I& M’s proposal, which was filed in August and is pending before the commission.

MPSC Chairwoman Sally Talberg and MPSC Commissioners Daniel Scripps and Tremaine Phillips were in attendance for the forum.

“We recognize all of these complaints tie back to the rates that customers pay and the bills that you’re concerned about,” Talberg said at the end of the forum. “We appreciate your feedback. It helps us as we get a lot of information that is forwarded to the commission.”

Utility-developed integrated resource plans, which are required under the state’s energy laws, map out how companies will meet the future electric needs of their customers.

I& M went through the same process two years ago during that rate increase request.

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