And by the end of the town hall meeting, Armstrong had in his possession a petition containing more than 1,800 signatures expressing the sentiment, to let the power brokers in Richmond know how folks in Carroll County feel about their ever-increasing electric bills and the effect on their lives.
“People are frustrated. People are angry. It’s hard to make a choice between necessities and the electric bill,” said Donnette Leonard, who spearheaded the town hall meeting. “That’s not good; that’s not the way life needs to be, not when the electric company is showing the profits they are. They’re a monopoly; this isn’t capitalism. There isn’t competition out there. They need reining in. Ward has come out today to give us all a voice. That’s what the people wanted.”
Several people spoke about their experiences with Appalachian Power and their spiraling power bills.
One woman with prorated bills talked about having to sell gold jewelry in order to pay an $800 January bill.
A man spoke about turning the power off at a home in order to stay in the hospital with an ill relative. With no power at the home from Nov. 24 to Jan. 3, he said they were still charged $453 and after talking to APCo representatives, they got it reduced to $224.
A citizen said their bill went from $170 to $560 and they were told their usage doubled from November to December. They documented their November usage at 1,286 kilowatt-hours and their December usage at 1,650 kWh.
An unemployed woman spoke up about having a $300 power bill while trying to make ends meet on a $125 weekly check.
After hearing the stories, Armstrong asked folks to raise their hands if they had a $200 power bill. Most of the room’s hands went into the air. He continued with $300, $400 and $500. While the hands in the air dwindled, many remained raised.
Armstrong then gave the gathering the backstory on the State Corporation Commission, deregulation, reregulation and how Appalachian Power cut a deal with delegates to get some legislation through while other bills died.
“The State Corporation Commission was started in the early 1900s to get the ratemaking process for the railroads out of the General Assembly and into the hands of a third party,” Armstrong said. “Why? Because the railroads owned the members of General Assembly. Isn’t it funny how history repeats itself?”
He said for years, the power industry was regulated, but those restrictions were lifted in 2001 in order to breed competition, which failed. The utilities were reregulated in 2006, but Armstrong said the power companies wrote the legislation and since that time, Appalachian Power has increased its rates 13 times and the average electric bill since 2006 has jumped 84 percent.
Armstrong said early in the 2010 legislative session, with several bills in play on the issue, he was approached by an APCo lobbyist who offered to drop the company’s interim rate increase if all the bills proposing tighter regulation died.
“I said, first of all, why am I making a deal with you? You’re not a delegate, you have no vote,” Armstrong said. “We called the SCC and asked if we roll back this increase, what does it mean? They said for 1,000 kWh, $12 a month. For the average person, that’s $15 a month. This is only for the time when the SCC rules on the rate increase. I said let me understand this. We’re proposing the fix for all of this is people reduce their power bills by $15 for four months? Are you kidding me? I said no.”
Later, Armstrong said in a special subcommittee on energy, his bill to return the power industry to the earlier regulatory scheme passed 7-2. He said 48 hours later, after lobbyists visited the Capitol, the full Commerce and Labor Committee voted the bill down. Four days later, on Feb. 16, Armstrong made the motion to dismiss the committee and bring the bill to the floor. After about an hour of debate, he said that motion failed by a nearly 3-1 vote.
At that session, representatives from Vaughan-Bassett and Consolidated Steel, companies with monthly power bills in excess of $100,000 to more than $1 million, were in attendance. Those representatives had met with legislators and Governor Bob McDonnell earlier that day to express how these rate increases are affecting their ability to keep their workforces up.
“Is it over? No, it’s not. What needs to happen is all over Southside and Southwest Virginia, we need to fill the cafeterias of the schools, the courthouses and the public buildings and say we’re not going to tolerate this kind of government in this state,” Armstrong said. “People are struggling already. The unemployment in this part of the state is worse than anywhere else. If you’re not concerned how hard this is on individuals, at least be mindful of the jobs you’re killing. This has to stop. You can’t let one company dominate peoples’ lives like this.”
Armstrong told those in attendance how they can find out who voted against that bill (search online for Virginia House of Delegates Bill 639) and to keep the issue in the forefront by contacting elected officials and Appalachian Power representatives.
“It’s important for you to stay vocal, write Appalachian and tell them how displeased you are,” Armstrong said. “Contact Delegate (Bill) Carrico; Senator (Roscoe) Reynolds. Write the Governor. He hasn’t stepped forward on this issue yet. This cannot end with no action. I pledge to you I will not rest until we pass meaningful protections and meaningful regulation on Appalachian Power and the power industry in the state. It is that important.”