BERLIN — Residents frustrated with higher-than-average electric rates and persistent blackouts last summer are in for some good news.
Over the course of the fall, residential electric rates have dropped about 12 percent, according to figures provided by the town.
“We changed the way we went about soliciting a purchase power contract,” said Mayor Gee Williams.
Berlin’s previous power contract, a three-year commitment, expired last winter. The council then began an extensive partnership with consulting firm Booth and Associates, which eventually led them to conduct a live Internet auction for the right to supply power to Berlin. Williams said the new residential rates are a clear sign that the move was a success.
A common complaint for many years in Berlin was that rates offered by the town were always higher than private market competitors, such as Choptank Electric Co. Even worse was the fact that town residents aren’t given a choice in utility providers — living in town means accepting town service. Under the new utility contract, which was signed last winter and went into effect last June, residential rates have dropped enough to be in line with, if not lower than, private competitors.
“Our rates now are very competitive with people in the area,” said Williams.
Councilman Troy Purnell acknowledged hearing criticism about town utility prices.
“The two biggest complaints I get are that taxes are too high and the electric is too high,” he said.
Electric Utility Director Tim Lawrence couldn’t speak for competitors, but confirmed that Berlin rates shouldn’t spike.
“The prices for residential will probably stay where they are right now,” he said.
With residential rates stable, the next step will be to seek a rate reduction on commercial electric rates, added Lawrence.
“We’ve actually been working on that for months now,” he said.
To lower commercial rates, Berlin needs permission from the Public Service Commission (PSC). Town officials met with the PSC recently and asked for a review of the situation in Berlin, with the aim to have commercial rates lowered. Purnell noted what Berlin wants is rather unique.
“Not many people are asking for a rate reduction,” he said.
Before any kind of reduction can be made official, however, the Mayor and Council plan on meeting with Dwight Davis, from Booth and Associates.
Williams said the town will be relying on his expertise to determine whether it would benefit Berlin to reduce commercial electric rates. If he determines that lowering those rates won’t hurt the town, the council will again visit the PSC.
When asked if he felt the cost of hiring the consultants was justified by the savings made under the new contract, Williams was emphatic that the costs were more than offset.
“In my opinion, absolutely,” he said. “Savings in operations and savings to customers are substantially more than what we’re paying for advice.”
Besides hammering down rates, the town has also addressed the plague of blackouts in Berlin last summer. Caused mostly by an unusually high number of lightning strikes, several power outages left residents in the dark, sometimes for several hours.
The town is currently installing new breakers at the power station. While these breakers can’t stop a blackout, they can isolate one.
“They decrease the likelihood of a town wide outage,” said Williams.
Berlin operated this summer without circuit protection because of equipment issues. The town was then forced to wait while new, custom-made breakers were built and shipped. Lawrence confirmed that all of the breakers have finally arrived and will be installed over the next few weeks.