Armstrong, the 10th District Delegate representing part of Carroll and Henry counties and all of Patrick County, is one of about a dozen delegates and senators from the southwest part of the state to introduce legislation in this General Assembly session aiming to provide relief from rising power bills.
Armstrong has been at the forefront of the House initiative to provide customers with relief from APCo, which has requested 13 separate rate increases since 2005. In December of last year, the company imposed an interim base rate increase of 12.8 percent for an average residential customer, plus an additional surcharge that upped the total increase to 15.5 percent. Over the past month, Armstrong said his office has been bombarded with complaints from residential customers with power bills of $600 and $700, even as high as $800.
“Clearly this last increase combined with all the other factors, the cold weather, problem with reading meters, just resulted in what I would term a disaster,” the Democratic delegate said. “People have seen bills skyrocket and it is just very unfortunate.”
Armstrong’s legislation seeks to return APCo to the form of cost-of-service regulation that applied to electric utilities prior to deregulation in 1999. It would also consolidate electric utility rate increase requests, eliminating stand-alone adjustments. Finally, the company would not be allowed to bill customers for rate increases before they are approved by the State Corporation Commission under the proposed legislation. If the company isn’t willing to play ball, Armstrong said legislators will take their ball elsewhere.
“One of the bills introduced is decertification, meaning if Appalachian can’t provide this we will provide somebody else that can. That is the electric utility equivalent of the death penalty, and I think that got their attention,” Armstrong said. “We can bring in Duke Power or another co-op, and I don’t think they want that.”
Armstrong, along with several other legislators from both parties, met with APCo President and CEO Dana Waldo on Jan. 27 to express their concerns. The local delegate said the meeting made the message clear that his constituents and others in Southwest Virginia are not happy with the frequency and size of the company’s rate increases.
“I told him that it was all I hear about it, that my people are furious and that we are not going to leave this session of the General Assembly without something being done. If they want to offer up any proposals as to what they could do to address the problem, we would be happy to hear from them,” Armstrong said. “(I told him) we have a very short window because we have to take action on these bills in about a week.”
Armstrong said Waldo explained that APCo is taking additional steps to allow people latitude in the payment of their bills. The company official also stressed during the meeting that folks having trouble paying their bills should contact APCo as it has payment plans and some charitable funds available.
“He indicated they are trying very hard not to turn off anyone’s power,” Armstrong said. “I think it would be in the best interests of people who don’t have a bill they can pay to call the company and see if they can’t get something worked out.”
And while that is a positive step, Armstrong said it’s still not nearly enough.
“That’s certainly helpful, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem that these bills are too high,” Armstrong said. “It’s sending an ambulance, but it doesn’t address the fact why we are having a car wreck to begin with.”
Armstrong said he is one of about a dozen senators and delegates from Southwest Virginia actively involved in finding a legislation solution to the problem. The problem is the interest level drops off significantly from Virginia legislators not from APCo’s service area. But rest assured, they are quickly being made aware of the situation and the affect the massive power bills have had on residents in this portion of the state.
“There are enough of us Democrat and Republican delegates and senators furious over this that other General Assembly members can’t help but notice,” Armstrong said.
To demonstrate that point, he noted a recent meeting held by the Joint Commission on Regulation of Utilities. Even though the committee is made mostly of lawmakers from outside APCo’s service area, the importance of providing relief to the citizens of this region was stressed emphatically.
“They heard enough of our comments that Senator Tommy Norment (Rep.) of Williamsburg and Senator Richard Saslaw (Dem.) of Fairfax told APCo they had better figure something out because the likelihood of this session ending without a bill being passed was very slim,” Armstrong said. “That is coming from two very powerful legislators not from (APCo’s) districts. But for me and a lot of other representatives in Southwest Virginia, this is the number one issue (this session).”
Armstrong was scheduled to host a Town Hall in Cana at the St. Paul School Cafeteria on Saturday. That meeting was postponed until Feb. 6 at 3:30 p.m. at the same location due to the winter snowstorm that blanked the region over the weekend. For those that planned to attend, Armstrong wanted to let them know he is doing everything in his power to provide relief his constituents.
“First of all I wanted to tell them that their concerns have been heard by me and that I am doing everything I can to get a handle on these electric rate increases. The second thing is that I certainly want to hear their individual stories because I think it is important that they know that their situation is important to us,” Armstrong said. “Thirdly, I wanted to brief them on what is going on and let them know we are trying. This is not an easy issue, trying to figure out what to do to rein them in. It’s not as simple as passing a bill saying, ‘Cut your rates 10 percent.’ No, you can’t do that. You have to figure some means to deal with it. Hopefully one thing we can do is stop this interim rate increase.”