HAMMOND — NIPSCO customers, Region pastors and others took to a microphone at Hammond High School on Monday night to decry the utility's proposed 11.5 percent electric rate hike.

"I stand here tonight as a pastor of a small congregation and we the citizens of Northwest Indiana simply cannot stand any type of rate increase," said Rev. Asher Harris, pastor of Great Band Missionary Baptist Church, in Gary.

Asher's comments were echoed by other pastors and NIPSCO customers who came to the high school to plead with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to reject NIPSCO's request.

Mary Ellen Slazyk, of Hammond, told how she struggles to pay her NIPSCO bill on a monthly Social Security check of just $694 a month. She told how her daughter supports her three children on a monthly take-home income of $800 from her job as a grocery cashier.

"There are a lot of seniors, and sick people, and people struggling on one paycheck like my daughter," she said.

Commissioners James Huston and David Ziegner listened attentively as more than 20 people registered their spoken comments in the hearing's first two hours. It will likely be the commission's only public hearing on NIPSCO's requested rate hike. About 100 people attended.

In February, the IURC will hear from lawyers from NIPSCO and consumer groups at an evidentiary hearing in Indianapolis. A decision should come later in the year.

Two speakers told the commission NIPSCO is a good corporate citizen, providing jobs and economic opportunity in Northwest Indiana.

One of them, Northwest Indiana Forum CEO Heather Ennis, said reports that economic opportunities have been lost due to NIPSCO's electric rates are not borne out by the experience of economic developers like herself.

"In my experience, I have not had a company say they are not locating in Northwest Indiana because of our rates," Ennis said.

Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council Business Manager Randy Palmateer pointed out 900 local tradesmen and women were recently employed on a major construction project at NIPSCO's Schahfer Generating station.

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Much of the opposition to NIPSCO's rate hike centers on its request to hike the fixed monthly charge on customer electric bills to $20 from its current $11 as part of the increase.

Groups such as the Environmental Law & Policy Center, of Chicago, say the shift away from charges based on energy use can discourage people from using energy efficiently.

Laura Ann Arnold, of the Indiana Distributed Energy Alliance, told commissioners that fixed charge increase sends entirely the wrong price signals to consumers who want to conserve.

The utility maintains a significant portion of customer bills will remain tied to usage, giving customers incentive to conserve energy.

A number of speakers decried The nearly $8 million in total annual compensation paid to the former CEO of NIPSCO's parent company in his last year on the job.

"This money is coming from somewhere and it's coming from the ratepayers of our region," Lake County Surveyor Bill Emerson Jr. said.

NIPSCO says it needs the 11.5 percent rate hike to pay for increases in production and distribution costs since its last rate increase five years ago. In addition, the company has installed significant system improvements, including $95 million in distribution upgrades and a $90 million meter replacement program.

Under NIPSCO's rate hike request, a typical residential customer using 700 kilowatts of electricity per month would see an increase to $102.16 from the current $91.63, making for a $10.53 increase, according to the utility.

Consumer groups contend the overall increase will actually be more than 11.5 percent, once bill surcharges known as "trackers" are tacked on.

NIPSCO says some of the impact of the rate hike for low-income customers will be offset by a once-per-summer $50 bill credit it has proposed.

NIPSCO has 460,000 electric customers spread across 32 counties in northern Indiana. It also has 810,000 natural gas customers. Natural gas bills would not be affected by NIPSCO's request for an electric rate increase.