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Big Crowd Gathers For PG&E Session
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Looking for answers and showing solidarity, over 300 Modesto Irrigation District (MID) customers - from areas including Oakdale, Riverbank and Escalon - attended a town hall meeting in Oakdale on July 23 where they heard the latest information on New Municipal Departing Load charges, a recent ruling by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that allows Pacific Gas and Electric to bill non-customers.

The CPUC declined to send a representative.

The controversy surrounds a recent CPUC decision that allows PG&E to bill customers who obtain electric power from other utilities for "departing load charges." Although these customers have never received service from PG&E, the CPUC ruled the customers are responsible to pay a portion of the state's bond obligations incurred during the 2000 and 2001 energy crisis. Other costs covered by the departing load charges include the Competition Transition Charge, a charge associated with the state's electric industry restructuring, and a Nuclear Decommissioning Charge, which ensures funds are available to deal with nuclear plants when they are retired. PG&E's shareholders do not benefit from the collection of these charges, according to the company.

Oakdale city council member Katherine Morgan, who successfully brought a resolution calling for the California State Assembly to halt the charges before the council earlier in the week, welcomed the crowd and introduced a panel that was on hand from MID and PG&E to answer questions.

Kurt Danziger of Escalon, one of the organizers of the Public Owned Utility Customer Association (POUCA), which organized the town hall meeting, was also on the panel.

Ann Trowbridge, an attorney who has represented MID against the CPUC and PG&E regarding the departing load charges, told the audience the CPUC allowed the charges under the theory PG&E would serve every customer in California. Yet, she said, MID and other utilities have provided services for years.

"PG&E knows this and should plan for it," she said.

"For the past five years these charges have been theoretical, but as you know, now they are very real," Trowbridge added.

Trowbridge encouraged the audience to "Keep asking questions until you receive answers."

A similar meeting was held in Merced in May, where a representative of the CPUC was questioned by ratepayers about the decision. At the Oakdale meeting, the CPUC sent a letter from Marzia Zafar, a CPUC Outreach Supervisor. In the letter, Zafar stated investor owned utilities, such as PG&E, have an obligation to serve all customers in their service territories.

"PG&E's municipal departing load charges are intended to recover costs that PG&E incurred in anticipation of serving customers who are now customers of a publicly-owned utility (POU), such as Modesto Irrigation District. If these costs are not recovered from these customers, other customers on PG&E's system have to unfairly bear these costs. The Legislature has determined that such costs be recovered from all customers who are responsible for incurring the costs," she wrote.

Ken Cooper, a program manager from PG&E, was also on the panel. He told the audience that 72 cents of every dollar of the departing load charges goes to the state for the energy crisis.

The final member of the panel was Tom Kimball, assistant general manager of MID.

Numerous MID customers spoke at the meeting, disputing the fairness of the CPUC decision. Some, like Don Barton of Oakdale, who owns a walnut shelling business, pointed out what they felt was a lack of common sense on the part of PG&E and the CPUC.

Barton said using the same rules as PG&E and the CPUC, if his customers decided to use a different processor for their nuts next year, he should still be able to bill them, as he was planning on the income.

Others said they didn't feel they were departing load customers, as they never had PG&E service.

Many were upset that no one from the CPUC or any local state politicians attended the meeting. Representatives from the offices of Senator Dave Cogdill and Assemblyman Tom Berryhill did attend the meeting, however.

Terry Prosper, a press officer with the CPUC, said no one was available from the CPUC to attend the meeting. Peggy Ragle, one of the organizers of POUCA, had notified the CPUC of the meeting on July 9, and had exchanged emails with the organization since then.

Zafar, the CPUC Outreach Supervisor, notified Ragle in an email on July 17 that the CPUC would not send a representative to the July 23 meeting in Oakdale.

Danziger said it was important for the group to keep their momentum.

"We're a wave, and if we're going to keep their attention we have to keep on rolling," he said, asking for assistance in designing a website and obtaining petitions for POUCA.

Gordon and Sharon Nickison of Ripon attended the meeting along with a neighbor, Harold Van Duyn. Sharon Nickison said they weren't departing load customers.

Gordon Nickison said he wouldn't pay the charges.

"What it smacks of to me is taxation without representation," he said.

"What it brought out to me is the CPUC is not for the people," Van Dyne added.

Ragle said a delegation is planning on attending the CPUC meeting on Thursday, July 31 in San Francisco.