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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Many Prepare for Shock of Higher Bills

March 29, 2001|BOB POOL and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was like sticking your finger in an electric socket: The pain felt Wednesday by millions of Californians jolted by the massive power rate hike was sudden--and it wouldn't let go of you.

"It's outrageous. I'll turn my main switch off before I'll pay a $200 electric bill," fumed Brian Mills, a Santa Monica movie grip who discovered his $144.64 electric bill will probably jump to about $197 the next time he writes a check to the Southern California Edison Co.

Electric users throughout the state scurried for pencils and paper to calculate how much Tuesday's rate increase will cost them. The Public Utilities Commission action boosts rates by as much as 42% for some Edison customers and as much as 46% for some served by Northern California's Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Customers of other utilities, including the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles and other municipal power companies, will not be affected.

Customers won't see increases until the May billing cycle. But The Times helped some users estimate their increases from power consumption levels on their current bills.

The new rate structure is designed to impose the greatest increases on homes and businesses that use the most power. Indeed, some frugal users were relieved to find that their bills will increase little or not at all. But all were angry over the state's electricity crisis--and skeptical that they will remain untouched.

Mills, 52, was shocked by his 36% estimated increase.

"I have a wife, two kids, two dogs, two parakeets and four lizards," he said. "I guess the lizards go first. We'll pull the plug on the little lizard heater."

Mills has already disconnected clocks in his house and the backyard swimming pool's motor. Tuesday night, he turned off his refrigerator while the family slept. "My wife was skeptical. She thought stuff might go bad. But the only thing that happened was the ice cream got a little soft," he said.

The calculations done by The Times are based on a four-tiered rate structure that could change in the next 30 days as the PUC staff refines the numbers. The estimates include a 9% rate increase adopted by the PUC in January but do not include taxes or a 10% discount that is scheduled to end in March 2002.

Electric bills for Balboa Island resident Sandy Ranier, 50, would increase by more than $17 from the current average of about $80 a month. "If it went up much more, then there would be problems," Ranier said.

"It's absolutely ridiculous what we're going through," said Gary Reason as he marched into the PG&E's West Sacramento office to hash out a soaring electricity bill--which would jump by $100 a month.

Sandra Magallanes said she kept her Sacramento home a chilly 65 degrees last summer. This year her husband and five children will "open the windows," she said. "It's going to get hot."

In Bakersfield, 70-year-old LaVerne Rogers, a retired potato packer and motel maid, said her winter power bills average $23. But summertime, with a house full of fans and a swamp cooler on, is a different story. So she's mapping her conservation plans.

"I even took out the outside porch light," she said. "The neighbors have porch lights so I'm just using their light. I come up with all kinds of strategies."

In the San Luis Obispo County city of Atascadero, Janet Coughlin faces a 26% increase. "My husband has sent me outside to hang the clothes this week" rather than run the dryer, she said. Her bill would go up about $29 under the PUC rate hike.

At PG&E's corporate headquarters in San Francisco, Edna Johnson came Wednesday to complain about the hikes. "I've already cut down television for my kids," said the single mother of three. "I guess I'll be doing a lot more barbecuing because my stove is electric. I just don't know what more I'm gonna do."

Those with smaller homes and smaller electric bills fared better Wednesday as they calculated their increases. But they showed anger over the state's power mess.

Betty Miller, 63, of Laguna Beach discovered her $50 a month bill won't rise much. "Our anger is going toward Gov. Davis. He fumbled the ball. I think we have him to thank for this," she said.

Others, like Huntington Beach banker Marianne Strombitski, said she and her husband can afford the extra $20 the rate hike may add to their $90 bill if they maintain their current consumption. "But if we increase our usage, we're going to move up a bracket, and have to pay $40. The bottom line is we're going to have to change our lifestyles because we refuse to pay the higher rate."

In Westlake Village, Clarence Kutschinski, 76, lives on a fixed income and clips coupons with his wife to get by. He was looking ahead Wednesday to tough times although his own power bill will probably remain stable for now.

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