HAMMOND — About 200 people — including seniors, elected officials and families living paycheck to paycheck — poured into the Hammond High School’s auditorium Monday night to sound off against NIPSCO’s proposed rate hikes.

The meeting was held so that the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which must approve any rate increase, could hear testimony from the public as part of its legal proceedings over NIPSCO’s rate case.

Under the utility's plan, the average monthly bill for small businesses and residential customers would increase by nearly 12 percent, whereas industrial customers’ bills would be reduced by nearly 19 percent.

The overall bill adjustment includes an increase to the existing, fixed $14 monthly customer charge by $3 per month, according to NIPSCO, which services about 820,000 natural gas and 460,000 electric customers.

People like Queen Alexander, a Lake County deputy clerk, said the hike means she and her husband’s $240 monthly utility bill at their Hammond home will increase by about $30 a month, or $360 per year, on top of NIPSCO’s proposed $3 monthly fixed charge increase.

“It’ll be like living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. Her husband, retired from the steel mills, now brings home a fixed income.

Buddie Fernie, of Hammond, said he retired in May from the city of Hammond’s planning department. Now 77, he and his wife live on a combined fixed income of about $52,000, he said.

“We can’t afford this. We recently had to remortage our home,” he told The Times.

Many argued it’s unfair that NIPSCO’s five biggest industrial customers — BP, U.S. Steel, Arcelor Mittal, Praxair and NLMK Steel – are all getting a break while the utility shifts the burden to individual consumers.

Wearing a navy blue T-shirt that read “Repower Indiana” and “People Over Polluters,” Lou Donkle, of Valparaiso, said the hike “reeks of yet another blast of trickle-down economics.”

“Give to the corporations and the rich, and take from the poor, the working class,” Donkle said.

People like Nancy Moldenhauer, of Michigan City, argued higher energy costs force low-income families to decide between paying their electricity bill and paying for other critical items such as health care, food and childcare.

“They have to make the choice of paying for food and medicine over having to keep warm in the wintertime and cool in the summer,” she said.

The changes would generate an additional $21.4 million in revenue, according to NIPSCO’s filings with the IURC. The average customer would see their bill increase by $11 per month, or about $132 per year.

NIPSCO has said the rate hikes are part of a larger plan to accelerate the retirement of older, less efficient coal-fired equipment and services and shift to natural gas and renewable sources.

Newly proposed electric rates would be phased in over two steps in September 2019 and March 2020, according to the company.

In recent days and weeks, several municipal boards, including Michigan City, Hammond and Gary, have passed resolutions opposing the hikes.

Municipalities would also be hit hard by the increase, officials argued.

Michigan City Council President Don Przybylinski said the city’s annual bill from NIPSCO is about $1 million. The company’s proposed increase would raise that by about $175,000, he said. He said small business owners with whom he has spoken to believes their bills will increase by about $5,000.

“That’s money that could be used to increase employee wages or benefits,” he said.

Gary City Councilwomen LaVetta Sparks-Wade, 3rd District, and Rebecca Wyatt, 1st District, spoke in opposition.

Sparks-Wade, a Gary mayoral candidate, said the city’s median income is $15,000.

“I plead of you, I beg of you, and I implore you not to give this increase to NIPSCO,” she told the IURC.

Wyatt said the cash-strapped city’s NIPSCO bill is about $370,000 a month. City government and its residents will suffer, while NIPSCO’s biggest industry customers benefit, she said.

“While businesses can pass on any increase, there’s no one, no one, for whom the family household can pass this onto,” she said.

NIPSCO has repeatedly pointed out their rates fall below the national average. However, the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor — the state's advocate for utility customers — said the utility’s electric rates ranked second-highest among utilities regulated by the IURC as of July 1, 2018.

The state’s OUCC is recommending against the hike.

This isn’t the first time NIPSCO’s proposed hikes has drawn the ire of residents, activists and business owners. More than 300 people turned out to IUN to an IURC hearing in March 2009, where the utility company was requesting a similar hike. That request was ultimately shot down in part due to public pressure.

NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyers said hearing from consumers is an important part of the regulatory process.

“The goal of this nearly yearlong review is to strike a balance on new rates that are fair to both customers and the company,” he said.

Groups like the Sierra Club, the Indiana NAACP and Citizens Action Coalition have come out in opposition of the hike.

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