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Many Prepare for Shock of Higher Bills

Power: In communities like Leisure World, built when electricity was plentiful and cheap, there's pain ahead.


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.

"I think it will be a terrible hardship on a great many senior citizens," predicted Ann Snyder, a resident of Leisure World in Laguna Woods, which was built in the 1960s when electricity was considered an efficient, economical energy source.

Snyder, whose home is outfitted with electric appliances, heating and cooling systems, said she tries to conserve wherever possible. She does her washing in the evening and disconnects her appliances--even her water heater--during the day. Still, she says, her bill runs between $50 and $60 a month and is likely to go somewhat higher.

"When I'm not home, the only thing operating is my refrigerator, and it's an energy-saving refrigerator," said the former Laguna Woods councilwoman.

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 Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and municipal power companies in Anaheim and elsewhere, will not be affected.

Customers won't see increases until the May billing cycle. But The Times contacted some and helped them 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.

Pamala Morgan can measure the effect of this week's record electricity rate hike in dollars and cents on her monthly bill. The cost to her family's dreams, though, are harder to gauge.

Morgan and her husband, Joseph, a raw plastics dealer, had hoped to move out of a Huntington Beach rental and into their own home later this year. But a sharp decline in plastic production--some of it tied to recent power outages--has cut Joseph Morgan's sales by about 75%, she said.

The resulting drop in income combined with the rise in the household electric bill--at least $15 a month--could mean a dream delayed, Pamala Morgan said.

"We were counting on a good year . . . to be able to buy," said Morgan, 35, as she took a break from home-schooling the couple's children, ages 11 and 9. "If he doesn't have a good year, then we're going to have to postpone that."

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.

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."

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

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."

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