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Santa Claus asked to join fight with Vectren

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Lincolnland Economic Development asks town council to join complaint

By Stuart Cassidy

SANTA CLAUS – A week after Rockport city officials signed a resolution to proceed in filing a complaint against Vectren with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, the town of Santa Claus was asked to join in the effort. 

As reported in the Feb. 14 edition of the Journal-Democrat, Rockport is working with attorney Shaw Friedman of LaPorte to petition the IURC to investigate Vectren’s coal-purchasing practices and other issues that impact electric rates. With practices in place they believe have worked to produce high electric rates and yield poor quality of service from the utility, the city began procedures to have the state regulatory commission investigate the claims.

During a Feb. 11 Santa Claus Town Council meeting, board attorney Kevin Patmore presented a draft resolution from Shaw Friedman and the Lincolnland Economic Development Corp. asking the town to support the inquiry.

Patmore said he had spoken with the law firm representatives and they were hoping to formalize an agreement that would allow the firm to work on the town’s behalf. 

Claims against Vectren include price increases of 109 percent over the past 10 years, as well as reported customer dissatisfaction as outlined in a 2012 report from J.D. Powers & Associates that ranked the company’s customer satisfaction at 115th out of 125 utilities surveyed in the country.

Also claimed are perceived questionable business practices by Vectren, whereby the company sells coal from its own subsidiary company at a higher rate than it does to other utilities.

Vectren has rebuffed the claims and taken the stance that the goal of the petition is to build momentum for the Indiana Gasification substitute natural-gas facility that has been under scrutiny from many state legislators. Vectren further claims they have offered transparent market-based reviews to the IURC and to the public. 

Patmore is working with Shaw Friedman on a fee scale for legal services. It is unknown how that fee would be calculated. He said in all likelihood, “it would have something to do with how much you’d save on your electric bill.”

However, Patmore recommended the town conduct more research into the matter before they commit. He said the IURC plans to convene a hearing on Vectren rates and will look at expiring contracts. He suggested the town not be overzealous in lambasting Vectren practices or rates. 

“We still have to deal with Vectren and they’re going to be your utility no matter what … Before you start telling them that their rates are compensatory and that they have to study any increases that are crippling our local economy, I think you need to do some investigation,” Patmore told the board.

Council President Ron Smith was not as willing to allow Vectren the benefit of the doubt. He felt the utility had “gigged” the town with their fees during several construction projects that required electricity-usage contracts.

In a move that could save a lot of taxpayer dollars, Patmore suggested that instead of hiring the outside attorney, the town should work with a representative from the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, a state agency that represents ratepayer interests in cases before the state and federal utility regulatory commissions.

“They’re supposed to be defending the Indiana consumers,” Patmore said. The state of Indiana already provides for them to go before the IURC.” 

“We’re already paying the tax dollars to advocate on the behalf of the consumer before the IURC and against the utility. So, why would you hire an attorney and perhaps be paying on this for the next 20 years on how much you’re saving when Indiana law already provides for the office of consumer counselor?” he added.

The council tabled any action until they can meet with Friedman and see their proposed case against Vectren.

The petition against Vectren is expected to be filed with the IURC in the coming weeks after the company files its quarterly fuel adjustment proceeding.