Greater Columbus consumers are being hammered by utility rate hikes one after the other as they grapple to keep pace with mounting bills for everything from groceries to entertainment.
What utility rates are increasing?
Last week, AEP Ohio said customers should expect their bills to jump by close to 30% this summer.
In January, Columbus water, sewer and storm water rates went up and are expected to cost city customers an average of $56 more a year, more in the suburbs, with another rate increase for 2024 likely.
And Columbia Gas rates are going up, with the utility saying that fixed costs will increase $3 or $4 a month for residential customers, but a consumer group saying monthly costs will go up by more than $20, from $37 a month to as much as $58.
What do rate hikes mean?
All this coming at a time when thousands are wrestling with bills thanks to stubborn inflation and higher rents and interest rates on mortgages, with the Federal Reserve poised to raise their key interest rate one more time, from 4.9% to 5.1% to try to ease inflation.
"What it essentially means for a lot of consumers is they’re going to have less disposable income for customers who are really struggling to pay their bills," said Rob Kelter, a lawyer with the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, a non-profit advocacy group that has filed an application for re-hearing with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio over the Columbia Gas increase.
"It may mean going without medication, spending less on food," Kelter said. "The average customer, you just keep getting squeezed on anything. It means less income for the things you enjoy in life. Less eating out. Less movies. Less baseball games."
Two other groups have filed re-hearing applications as well: Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy and the Citizens Utility Board of Ohio, PUCO spokesman Matt Schilling said.
The rate hikes strain the wallets of people such as Raphael Kingstons, a 45-year-old driver for the Central Ohio Transit Authority, who was waiting to start driving Downtown on Thursday.
"It does affect you. You have to work. What you earn goes to pay your utilities. Prices go up, with inflation and everything," Kingstons said. That means there's less to spend on other things, he said.
PUCO signs off on increase
The PUCO in January signed off on a settlement on the Columbia Gas increase, but the commission must make a decision on the re-hearing applications, Schilling said. The new rates went into effect March 1.
Kelter was upset by the PUCO settlement.
"The PUCO doesn’t care about the consumers they're supposed to protect by being regulators," Kelter said. "It’s tone deaf."
In a statement, Ohio Consumers' Counsel spokesman J.P. Blackwood said: "Now is not the time for another AEP rate increase given that Ohioans have been facing financial challenges from soaring energy prices, inflation, and lingering impacts of the pandemic."
Blackwood also said that Ohio’s laws on utility service, which result in part from utility lobbying, offer them a number of ways to increase the rates that consumers pay. "By comparison, utility consumers’ opportunities to seek rate reductions are relatively limited," he said.
Robert "Bo" Chilton, CEO of IMPACT Community Action, said many people don't have the money.
"We have seen an increase in people reaching out to us, needing assistance with energy costs transportation costs, housing costs, child care costs. Everything is going up," Chilton said.
Kelter said that for those with lower incomes, those fixed costs are harder to absorb. Someone living in a 500-square-foot apartment is paying the same fixed charge as someone in a 10,000-square-foot house.
So people can decrease their costs by heating their homes at lower temperatures during the winter and cooling them at higher temperatures in the summer, he said. But they can't do anything about fixed charges.
"Fundamentally, we understand that utilities need to have system that provides safe and reliable energy," Kelter said. "They can recover those costs by selling electricity and gas. They don’t need profits guaranteed through fixed monthly customer charges."
AEP Ohio spokesman Scott Blake said the higher electricity rates are determined through a market-based auction process each year and take effect in June the following year. He said the PUCO did review and accept the auction results. The new rates will be in effect through May 2024.
Columbus water and sewer rate schedule
As far as the city of Columbus' rate increases go for 2023, they line up this way:
? Water, 4% increase.
? Sanitary sewer, 5% increase.
? Storm water, 2 % increase.
The city's Low Income Discount program participants get 20% off their bills and saw an overall hike of 4.42%.
George Zonders, a spokesman with the city's Department of Public Utilities, said the city's Sewer and Advisory Board will meet later this year to discuss and make recommendations on 2024's rates.
"You're probably looking at another increase next year," Zonders said.
Programs available to help pay utility bills
At the end of February, the city had 6,828 low-income households receiving a water and sewer discount, as did 3,522 senior households. A complete list of programs can be found at: https://www.columbus.gov/utilities/customers/Reduce-Your-Bill-and-Financial-Assistance/
And when that has happened before, some users will call the city frustrated that they have to pay yet one more increased cost for a basic life necessity.
"We get it. We absolutely get it," Zonders said. "Everything is going up. You hate to see something in basic life going up."
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Multiple utility bills going up across Columbus, how can customers cope?