City Web site adds to BGE rates confusion

Math on early version of page, showing how bills would rise, is incorrect

May 06, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore City government, seeking to "manage the confusion" about BGE electricity rates -- and perhaps do a little political spinning -- has created a Web page where consumers can enter the amount of their current bills and see how much the figures will go up if they opt in or stay out of a plan to defer an impending increase.

But it appears consumers weren't the only ones confused. The city's initial version got the math wrong, but BGE isn't so sure about the corrected one either.

"The calculator that the city has placed on its Web site is one that BGE had no input into, and it is not associated with BGE," said Robert L. Gould, a spokesman for BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy. "As a result, we are unable to stand behind its accuracy."

Constellation officials have said they would like to include such a calculator on their Web site but that doing so would be complicated.

Steve Kearney, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the city's calculator was developed by using information from the rate plan BGE filed with the Public Service Commission, a question-and-answer sheet prepared by the attorney general's office and "some simple algebra."

The rate mitigation plan, negotiated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with Constellation officials, allows participating customers to put off some of the 72 percent rate increase due July 1. In exchange, they will be charged a monthly fee for two years, beginning June 1, 2007.

BGE says the fee will amount to $19 a month for a typical customer, but the city's Web calculator initially added $27 a month to bills when the fee kicks in. Moreover, the fee is variable -- customers who use more electricity will pay proportionately higher fees -- but the number on the city's Web site was fixed.

Kearney said the current version of the calculator corrects those problems.

The city's Web site also does not mention Constellation's promise to reduce customer bills by an average of $4 a month starting Jan. 1, 2007, if its pending merger with Florida-based FPL Group Inc. is completed.

BGE rates are set to rise 72 percent July 1, when six-year caps on electricity prices are lifted. The caps were imposed as part of a deregulation plan passed by the General Assembly in 1999.

With the rate increase a hot political topic, the governor negotiated a deferral plan after lawmakers failed to come up with a solution during the legislative session that ended last month. The PSC has approved the plan with a modification that defers interest charges, and customers can begin enrolling later this month.

O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against the governor this fall, has been an outspoken critic of the Ehrlich-appointed majority on the Public Service Commission and of the rate deferral plan.

"As your city government continues to work to force the Maryland Public Service Commission to reconsider the 72 percent rate increase it approved, we wanted to also offer information to help you manage the confusion surrounding the Ehrlich-BGE rate increase proposal," the Web site says. It also links Ehrlich to the pending rate increase by offering consumers the "BGE-Ehrlich Rate Increase Calculator" to "help answer questions about the billing choices Maryland families may soon face." Ehrlich was in Congress when the 1999 law passed and was not involved in establishing the rate caps.

He has, however, come under criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for not taking a stronger pro-consumer stance in negotiations with BGE and for appointing Public Service Commission members whom many criticize as being too pro-utility.

Yesterday the mayor repeated his call for the resignation of PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler after former PSC workers told a legislative committee examining Ehrlich's firing practices that they had been terminated to make room for employees aligned with the utility industry.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said that the calculator is flawed for several reasons, and that the message with it doesn't belong on an official city Web site.

"Not only is Mayor O'Malley using taxpayer dollars for brazen political propaganda, he's doing it in extremely misleading fashion," Fawell said in an e-mail. "If Mayor O'Malley wants to help consumers with energy costs, he should just apologize for foisting an energy tax hike on Baltimore City residents and repeal the tax immediately." The reference was to a tax imposed by the city in 2004.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s office has posted a question-and-answer section on his Web site about utility issues in an effort to help consumers make an informed choice. It is available at www.oag.state.md.us/rate hike.htm.

"These plans are confusing, and anything we can do to explain the options available to consumers, we must do," Curran said in a news release. "This is big money we are talking about, and people must be aware of what they'll be paying in June and July of 2006, AND what they'll be paying in June of 2007."

The PSC has also posted fact sheets about the BGE rate mitigation plan, as well as plans for Pepco and Delmarva customers, on its Web site, www.psc. state.md.us/psc.

The city also announced yesterday that a Baltimore Circuit Court judge has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday on its lawsuit to stop implementation of the rate deferral plan.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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