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Aniak residents expressed concerns about power prices at the Regulatory Commission of Alaska’s public meeting

Olivia Ebertz

When the Regulatory Commission of Alaska (RCA) opened the floor to public comment at its bi-weekly public meeting on June 28, it heard plenty. More than 30 of Aniak's Elders, teenagers, a Calista Corporation representative, business owners, teachers, and community members spoke about the hardship caused by the unexpected quadruple increase in their power bills from Aniak Light and Power Company. Bills often exceeded $1,000 per household for the month of May.

After over an hour and a half of comments, RCA Commissioner Bob Pickett had a comment of his own.

“I appreciate everyone from Aniak taking the time. It's a very compelling story,” Pickett said on the call. “And I will be supporting a management practices investigation of the utility with the certificate being on the line. We have not heard from the utility at this point.”

That’s changing. The next day, the president of Aniak Light and Power Company, Darlene Holmberg, said, “I have asked the state if there's an option that would have served better. And they've kind of indicated there is, but they have not handed me any options.”

Holmberg said that she is hoping that RCA can help turn around the price hikes that have rocked her community.

“It's horrible. I couldn’t, I was mortified,” Holmberg said. “I was certain I was wrong. And I submitted it to the state because I couldn't find an error. And they proved it. So I'm hoping that they can come along and say there is another method and approved methodology.”

Pickett outlined the next steps. He said that RCA won’t make the decision without working with the utility, and they’ll need to bring in commission staff and administrative law judges, which are independent adjudicators often used for regulatory matters.

“We've only had a couple of these types of investigations and they can be quite brutal, quite frankly. One was in Aniak, another one in Egegik,” said Pickett. “And at the end of the day, if the commission does find that the utility is not willing and able under its Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, you've got to figure who is going to do it then.”

Public Information Officer for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska Steven Jones said that the commission will consult with an administrative law judge about the next steps to look into management practice.

They look at a number of things to determine whether it's, does it require an onsite visit? Does it require testimony? Does it require witnesses or experts, or there's a variety of things that they have more power to call upon than the consumer protection section would be able to do,” Jones said.

Jones also said that the commission will be considering some of the issues brought up.

“There was a number of people that expressed questions to the commission such as the adjustment, or record keeping, or age of infrastructure and so on,” said Jones.

Jones explained that there are different types of investigations depending on the issue.

“Whether it be billing practices, or management practices, or rates, charges, all of those things fall under their tariff. And so if there's one that they believe that may need further investigation, they narrowed down the topic. In this case, [Pickett] believed it to be management practices," Jones said. “Typically, management practices take on a higher level of the commission because it's not something as clearly defined as, say, a rate page might have the numbers on it. Whereas a management decision may not be clearly written or not spelled out, or just needs further investigation because it was interpreted a different way.”

The comments from the public were intense. Two members of the commission called them compelling. Aniak residents talked about the financial challenges, fears about the prices come winter, fears for Elders living on fixed income, about mental and physical health concerns, and about the impact of these costs on their subsistence lifestyle. They also spoke about feeling that their concerns have been sidelined because of their remote location and predominantly Native population.

“Everything is gonna go up. We're literally destroying Alaskan villages,” said resident Rachel Youngblood. “And I'm gonna say it. I feel that nobody cares. The bottom line is that the people living in the villages are Native, continuously to be underserved, and nobody pays attention to them. And it's not right.”

Resident Roxanne Evan said, “I'm considering moving, but who's going to buy my house with the exorbitant costs of living out here. I pay a mortgage every month.”

Resident Adrian Bowens added that she was afraid of costs come winter. 

I know I'm gonna have to make hard decisions,” Bowens said. “Am I going to buy groceries this year, this month? Or am I going to pay my $1,200 light bill? I double think every time I use my ovens now, when I take a shower. I don't want to plug my coil stove in for heat.”

This week, residents learned prices have been pushed up by another 13%.

The regulatory commission has told the company that they have to file more frequently because of the current price surges.

Jones said that the utility made a filing to change the prices again on June 28 which, if approved, would bring the cost down to about 10% less than current prices.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.
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