About 100 people filled the council chambers at High Point City Hall on Thursday night and, with few exceptions, expressed their displeasure to the N.C. Utilities Commission over rate increases proposed by Duke Energy Corp.
"Compassion tells us that people are having financial struggles," Joey Edens of Kernersville said as he read from a prepared statement. "We do not need add to that struggle that is expanding every day."
Duke Energy sought the commission's approval earlier this month to boost residential power rates by 17 percent. If the commission approves the increase, the average monthly home power bill of $97.05 would go up by $19 in February, The Associated Press has reported.
The commission is holding a series of public hearings around the state to get input on the increase.
"I'm concerned about people out of work," Sally Hirsh of Winston-Salem said before the meeting began. "How are they going to afford this rate increase?"
Duke Energy is also seeking a 14 percent increase for businesses. Rate increases for all kinds of customers would average about 15 percent.
Davis Montgomery, a district manager for Duke Energy Corp., acknowledged the hardship the rate increases might cause for some, but he said the increases would be lower than the national average and competitive with the rest of the Southeast.
He also reiterated Duke's rationale for the increases. About three-fourths of the rate increases would enable Duke Energy to "begin recovering $4.8 billion in investments made since 2009 to modernize our electric system and comply with emissions regulations," according to Duke Energy's website. The remaining fourth would cover the impact "of lower-than-expected electric sales due to the recession, additional financing and other general costs."
Edens took issue with at least some of that reasoning. "It's not right to tell people to conserve, conserve, conserve, and then try to justify a rate increase in part because people are using less electricity," he said.
Several speakers also questioned how the rate increases could be justified when Duke Energy's earnings were $1.3 billion last year and Jim Rogers, the company's chief executive, was paid $6.9 million, an increase of 25 percent over 2009.
A handful of people didn't address the issue of the rate increases per se. Instead, they used their allotted speaking time to praise Duke Energy. Among them was Gary Green, the president of Forsyth Technical Community College.
"Duke Energy has been working with us to provide training for those who've lost jobs in the legacy industries," he said.