Pike County deregulation 'shook this town to its knees'

More than two years ago, high electric bills shocked residents in the Pike County town of Milford.Power rates soared by 67 percent after rate caps expired for Pike County Light & Power Co.’s customers in the fall of 2005. With taxes factored in, the increase swelled to 129 percent — a hammer blow from a change set to happen in Centre County on Dec. 31, 2010.

“The power bill was a big hit,” said Ron Heller, who with his wife owns the Giffard & White gift shop in Milford. “It just shook this town to its knees. I think people are still reeling.”

Steep rates may have added to the financial woes of many in this northeastern corner of the Poconos. The Pike County Courier recently reported that county residents filed for twice as many bankruptcies last year than in 2006. Most had high credit card debt, mortgage problems or uncovered medical bills.

Half of the county receives service from Pike County Light & Power. Met-Ed, whose caps will end in 2010, serves the rest.County businesses, saddled with higher expenses and coping with a drop in critical tourism revenue, are trying to conserve energy wherever possible.

Lenore Fasula, the owner of Wild Meadow Flowers in Milford, used fewer Christmas lights this winter, turned down the heat and sealed her windows with plastic wrap.

“People have to pull in the reins,” Fasula said.

Heller’s bills jumped 126 percent, but he brought them down 44 percent by switching to fluorescent bulbs. He used the air conditioner less in the summer and, this winter, has dialed back his thermostat at night.

“I come in the morning and pray to God a customer doesn’t come in real early while the place is still cold,” he said.In debt, he’s finding it hard to stay open.

“I can’t mark up my gifts 126 percent to cover my expenses,” he said.

At the Milford Diner, owner Peter Rigas has tried eliminating daytime and outside lights and cutting back on air conditioning to reduce electric bills that average $4,500 a month — nearly double his bills before deregulation.“But this is nothing. It’s like pennies,” he said. “We’re doing anything in our power to make it work.”

The problem is, he needs all of his power-gobbling refrigeration equipment. Menu prices have gone up a bit, but not nearly enough to offset his higher overhead.

“Do you know how many coffees I would have to sell?” he said.

And so, hamstrung, he pays his power bills and carries on.

“After 40 years in business, I try so hard,” he said. “There’s nothing to save money anymore. We’re struggling.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.