The sixth and final hearing on a request for a rate increase by the state’s second largest utility company met with a mix of praise and criticism for Jersey Central Power & Light Wednesday at Freehold Township’s Town Hall.
JCP&L, fresh off widespread criticism for its handling of Hurricane Sandy and the Nor’easter that followed, is seeking a 4.1 percent increase in the rates it charges its 1.1 million customers — many of whom were without power for up to two weeks after this winter’s storms.
The Morristown-based company, the main power supplier in Monmouth, Ocean and Morris counties, is seeking to recoup the $630 million it spent on repairs following Sandy. It has petitioned the state regulatory board -- the Board of Public Utilities -- which has held hearings throughout JCP&L’s coverage area since the beginning of the month.
Leading the charge against the rate hike were Assemblywomen Amy Handlin and Caroline Cassagrande, both R-Monmouth, who delivered scathing statements, saying the company was “derelict in its duty’’ to maintain and upgrade its infrastructure before extracting profits.
“JCP&L took unnecessary chances with old equipment, low staff and poor maintenance many years before Sandy made this company a four-letter word in our region,’’ Handlin said. “I implore the BPU: Send a message to JCP&L that we will not reward poor performance with rate increases.’’
Cassegrande chastised JCP&L for not taking advantage of $600 million of state stimulus money being offered to utility companies for infrastructure upgrades.
“We were literally giving away $600 million dollars two years ago, to any utility that would apply,’’ Cassagrande said. “But to apply, you had to open up your books. You had to show us what you were making. And that, I think is one of the most telling things.”
Wednesday night’s hearing was the second held at Town Hall. A hearing also took place Wednesday afternoon.
If the BPU approves the rate hike, the average monthly power bill would increase from about $98.10 to about $102.54, an increase of around $4.44. The estimate is based on a household that uses 650 kilowatts monthly.
Company officials on Wednesday were quick to point out that even with the rate increase – the first since 2005 -- JCP&L has the lowest rates of any power company in the state.
JCP&L -- whose parent company, FirstEnergy, is located in Ohio – also had its supporters.
Michael Gross, a councilman in South Amboy, had high praise for the company’s handling of Hurricane Sandy aftermath in his town. Communication was good and response was equal, if not better, than he could have expected, Gross said.
“It would be easy as an elected official to come down here and beat up on the utilities. It’s the easy thing to do, but it’s not the right thing to do,’’ Gross said. “I will say this: JCP&L came through for me.’’
Old Bridge Councilman Kevin Calogera said JCP&L’s representative in his town has been accessible and helpful for the 12 years he’s been on the governing body.
“Anytime, day or night, the man picks up the phone and he’s been responsive,’’ Calogera said.
The electrical workers’ union chief who represents JCP&L’s union workers, Ed Stroup, also sang the praises for both line workers and company management, saying he thought the company could have asked for a larger increase.
“It’s not a great deal of money,’’ Stroup said. “In my opinion, JCP&L could have asked for more. How long can they be expected to do more with less?’’
But Richard Inkeles, a Neptune resident, posed a different question.
“You say Jersey Central Power & Light needs this money to replace their funds,’’ Inkeles said. “How about the people who lost their food? I had a freezer go out. I had a refrigerator go out. What did we get compensated? We didn’t get anything.”