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Hundreds at Public Hearing Protest SDG&E Plan To Recoup Fire Costs

“We’re still getting burned,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob told the Public Utilities Commission; nearly 150 people signed up to speak.

Hundreds gathered to tell representatives of the state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday what they think of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s proposal to potentially collect "excess" costs of the 2007 wildfires and any future fires from ratepayers.

"Chutzpah!" was all one woman said when she got to the lectern. She explained the meaning of the word. "Complete ... unmitigated ... gall."

The meeting began with people in the audience booing and yelling as a SDG&E spokesman explained the figures on a white board. So far, the company's insurance has covered $1.1 billion in costs for the 2007 Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires.

Under a proposal before the PUC, the company could lay the foundation to recover an estimated $500 million or more for the uninsured costs incurred from these fires and also collect for any future wildfires, whether the utility is found to have caused the blazes or not.

That could include legal fees incurred by the utility.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob received a standing ovation from many in the audience Thursday after telling representatives of the PUC, "You burn it, you buy it," referring to SDG&E.

"We feel like we're still getting burned," she said. "I am outraged, like many ratepayers in this room. Two people died ... while Sempra gives out bonuses."

Together, the three fires killed two people, injured at least 40 firefighters, scorched more than 200,000 acres and incinerated 1,300 homes. Firefighting agencies spent more than $18 million to quench the Witch Creek Fire alone.

SDG&E seeks to establish a Wildfire Expense Balancing Account (WEBA) to record its fire related expenses. Once set up, that would lay the foundation for the utility to bill their customers for "excess costs."

In an interview with Patch earlier this year, SDG&E's spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said these types of accounts are common. She said the company should have an opportunity to recoup costs when "the utility is not at fault."

State investigators found that SDG&E's poorly maintained equipment was a cause of the 2007 wildfires. The company never accepted responsibility for causing the fires, and in the settlement approved by the PUC, it admitted blocking the investigations into the causes.

Thursday's hearing was brought to San Diego by request of residents after various parties filed papers with the PUC to block SDG&E's plan and give ratepayers a chance to weigh in on the matter.

The opponents are Mussey Grade Alliance of Ramona, Michael Aguirre (representing resident Ruth Henricks), a group called TURN (The Utility Reform Network) and the Center for Accessible Technology (representing people with disabilities). 

Two staff divisions of the PUC are also in opposition, according to TURN: the Consumer Protection and Safety Division and Division of Ratepayer Advocates.

Representatives of the opposing parties were present Thursday but were not allowed to make presentations, except as individuals.

An attorney for TURN, Nina Suetake, said outside the meeting that one of two SDG&E proposals before the PUC seeks to cover the utility from even "criminal negligence" related to fires. She said opposing attorneys for the various groups were "shocked" when they saw this wording.

Several speakers Thursday told commission representatives there would be no incentive for SDG&E to carry out its safety obligations if it can simply pass along fire costs to ratepayers.

As the Thursday afternoon meeting began, a spokeswoman silenced the crowd by saying, "We have 146 people signed up to speak." There was standing room only in the Al Bahr Shriners' Memorial Auditorium in Kearny Mesa. Another hearing was due to kick off at 6 p.m.

Among other speakers were state Senator Christine Kehoe, County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price and Dave Roberts, Deputy Mayor of Solana Beach.

Kehoe told the panel she wants to make sure ratepayers are treated fairly in this process. She said fire agencies have told her that "we can expect more wildfires, each possibly in excess of 100,000 acres."

Slater-Price said, "I think it's telling that other utilities have seen the light and have withdrawn their applications (to the PUC)."

Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric both pulled out of the proposal, according to Mussey Grade Alliance.

Several speakers told the commission representatives that SDG&E's insurance issues shouldn't be the public's problem.

"I think it's time SDG&E is forced to absorb its losses like other businesses," Slater-Price said. "Why should customers have to help them out?"

Roberts told the panel, "No one in this room expects SDG&E to be perfect. But we expect them to own up. SDG&E made a mistake and like all businesses, they must be held accountable. You're charged with protecting the public from decisions that are not in their best interests."

At least two people in the audience spoke in support of SDG&E on Thursday. One member of a fire agency said SDG&E is working proactively for fire prevention and he would not like to see insurance issues distract from that.

A policy maker for County Supervisor Ron Roberts said the utility has donated computers in support of a regional fire emergency communications system.

Outside the meeting, Mussey Grade Road Alliance representative Diane Conklin said ratepayers need to continue sending their opinions to the PUC; they can do so here.

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