They converged on McPherson Square, most of them dressed in black and gold. As a band played the lilting strains of the old-time hymn, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” they marched, dancing and singing in a New Orleans-style funeral procession.

Their destination wasn’t a graveyard, however. It was the District’s Public Service Commission building at 13th and H streets NW, where they went to “bury” a proposed $42.5 million rate hike. The June 11 event was organized by Our DC, a non-profit advocacy group for local residents. About 100 protesters who marched in the symbolic procession then headed into a hearing where the commission heard testimony about the proposed increase. Testimony at the hearing concluded on June 12.

The marchers, some of them carrying signs, urged the commission to deny the increase.

“I’m John and I’m 60-years old and I want you to know that this is hard on a diasabled man on a fixed income,” John Butler shouted. Some protesters carried signs with slogans like “Vote No!” At one point during the second day, dozens of people who protest the rate hike chanted “PEPCO is greedy!” At that point, the room was cleared.
During the two-day haring, the commission questioned William Gausman, PEPCO’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, about projects the power company plans to initiate using funds from the increase.

Commission officials said they wanted to guarantee that customers were not being overcharged for power.

PEPCO defended increase saying it is necessary to make improvements to infrastructure to prevent long-term outages.

“PEPCO has requested this rate adjustment to support investments in infrastructure that will better serve our customers,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “These investments include replacing and upgrading electrical equipment, pruning trees, and investing in the future by building the Smart Grid, and adding Web-based technologies to provide increased methods to communicate with our customers. Also, new infrastructure is continuously being added to support load growth and to provide service to new customers.”

Changes proposed by PEPCO were spurred by a public outcry over PEPCO’s response to a crippling snow storm in the winter of 2010 and another snow emergency last year. Tens of thousands of customers in the District and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties were left without power. PEPCO was criticized for the lengthy delay some of its customers experienced in having their power restored while other power companies seemed to recover faster. In response to PEPCO’s actions in the 2011 storm, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) asked in a letter to the power company: “Why can’t PEPCO perform as its fellow utilities do?”

PEPCO was fined $1 million by the Maryland Public Service Commission for providing poor service reliability in 2011.
“PEPCO’S customers have paid a substantial price for PEPCO’S neglect, measured not just by direct economic costs such as closures of businesses leading to lost wages and reduced tax revenue, but also by less tangible costs, including the physical discomfort caused by multiple outages and the uncertainty of knowing when persistent outages will end,” the Maryland commission found during an inquiry after the 2011 storm response.

But while the company was criticized for its failures, its top officer received staggering pay increases. The $1 million fine was issued just days after PEPCO Chairman and CEO Joe Rigby received a $6 million raise in salary and stock, according to Our DC. In 2011, he also received a 102 percent bump in his salary, the group said.

The proposed rate hike will cost customers about $5.50 per month. It must be approved by the District Public Service Commission before it will take effect. A decision is expected later this summer.

Butler, 60, hopes the commission listens to the protesters’ pleas.

“Senior citizens like myself can’t afford to pay a rate increase to a company that’s not worthy of receiving one,” he said.

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO