Single low rate for all, Hatters protesting power prices demand

Home > Resources > Single low rate for all, Hatters protesting power prices demand

Single low rate for all, Hatters protesting power prices demand

December 6, 2023

The promise of new measures next week to address high power bills hardly calmed a rowdy crowd of 500 Hatters who packed a protest meeting and called for major changes to pricing by the city-owned utility.

Four city councillors attended the gathering at Higdon Hall on Tuesday, the day after a special motion of council moved the issue of relief measures onto its Sept. 5 meeting agenda.

Through 90 minutes they were asked questions and were bombarded with complaints about billing fees, cost of production and power rates that doubled or quadrupled from June to July.

“Some of us on council saw a train wreck coming in June, and tried to address it,” Coun. Andy McGrogan told the crowd at one point. “Well, here’s the train wreck.”

“Why didn’t you stop the train?” yelled a voice in the crowd.

“Look,” answered McGrogan. “We agree with a lot that’s being said. Wait until Tuesday when (council) decides.”

Coun. Darren Hirsch and Cassi Heider also took turns at the podium along with Mayor Linnsie Clark.

On July 4 council debated potential relief options as a large number of Hatters were set to move to higher rates after a six-month special offer started the year.

A majority of members settled on more support for qualifying low-income earners, while delaying a push by some councillors for a larger look at power rates or developing a special dividend for ratepayers until the end of the year.

Hirsch, who pushed for the dividend discussions, told the crowd council appears ready to act.

“At the end of the day, we’ll do what it takes to help the citizens of Medicine Hat.”

This week, all nine council members agreed to move a reporting date on utility relief and potential rate relief options ahead from the end of 2023 to next Tuesday’s council.

Meeting organizer Sou Boss told the crowd that such a protest should not have had to be called, but action has quickly followed after it was.

“I feel that this is long overdue,” said the local restaurant owner, who says businesses will struggle to pay bills this year.

“For most, increases are in the thousands. Everyone regardless should be getting the best rate without having to gamble (on contract options) … We don’t have an option (of another power company) and that’s why we should be offered the lowest rates.”

Former councillor Phil Turnbull moderated the meeting and interjected at times to answer questions. He has publicly lobbied this spring and summer for the city to create a dividend formula that flows directly to residents.

“Go on Tuesday night and if you don’t like what you hear, then we’ll have another meeting,” he stated.

A long line of attendees delved into their own bills and personal circumstances, saying costs were overwhelming.

Piquing the anger is an estimate that the power plant could turn a $140-million profit this year. Officials have said in the past that most of that would-be record profit comes from selling to the Alberta market, not from internal city customers.

But attendees who saw their rates double from June to July demanded on Tuesday figures about the bare cost to produce power, and one single “lowest” rate in the province.

“It’s really gone beyond absurd,” said Jim Hall, a former head of the union representing most city hall workers.

“There’s no way you can tell me that there is no way to give one price for utilities.”

Among few voices calling for calm was Robert Lawson.

“There’s no point debating what’s behind us, but let’s get this done,” he said. “I, like most of you, I want the cheapest rate.”

Other attendees debated about the price of natural gas, the city’s abandonment program, the use of the profits, and fees that also add to bills.

Late last year council approved new longer-term, fixed-rate contract pricing after most Hatters were used to simply remaining on the default rate.

Since 2012, that default monthly rate was set at the average of other default rates in the province. The “Medicine Hat advantage” was toured as the municipal exemption that shielded customers from high transmission fees paid by the rest of Albertans.

This year however, those default rates – set off forecasts of the Alberta grid power price – have skyrocketed, rising 10 times faster than rates in every other province.

Clark told the crowd that she and council are sympathetic and could act in a variety of ways.

“We have to find a way to smooth out the market, but also have a circuit breaker,” she said.

“There are a number of options,” she said, including one-off payments, rate-setting changes, or the adoption of a cost-plus pricing model, which would entail bare cost calculation plus a return.

In early 2022, council approved a measure allowing some customers who missed a cutoff to backdate gas contracts to the previous month’s rates.

In 2021, council also paid a general $135 to all utility customers on summer bills, though that was a general “COVID relief” program and the use of billing accounts was seen as the most effective way to distribute it.

Condo owner Darlene Collings said the pricing system and profits from the power plant need to examined, and a single low rate was the best answer.

“It was never meant to be a slush fund for the city to use however they want,” she said. “We’re a municipally-owned utility and we have the full rights to set our own rates.”

Spread the love