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Soaring bills fuel consumer wrath


Pacific Gas & Electric Co. bills are hitting Bay Area mailboxes -- and consumer outrage over gas prices and rate hikes is rising as high as the bills themselves.

Despite weeks of reports about the state's dire energy crunch, the gravity of the situation didn't sink in until residents ripped open their January bills and saw the hefty increases. In many cases, bills are nearly double last month's charges.

Because of the rise in the cost of natural gas across the country, the average residential gas bill is 60 percent higher than it was in December. But the bills also include a 9 percent rate hike for electricity that was approved earlier this month by the state Public Utilities Commission.

At first glance, consumers are shocked. Many do a double take.

Then they get angry.

``It's outrageous,'' said a visibly annoyed Vera Douglass, 54, of Fremont. ``It's not our fault that they messed this whole thing up. We've got a new president, and he says that California has to work out the problem on our own. Well, how much longer is this going to take? What are they going to decide in Sacramento?''

Double from December

Douglass lives in a one-bedroom apartment, and said she has tried to conserve gas and electricity. But her PG&E bill this month is $172 -- nearly double what she paid in December.

``I'm going to pay it, because I don't want them to turn it off,'' she said. ``But I still don't understand what is going on here.''

Douglass spoke Tuesday afternoon outside PG&E's Fremont service center, in an out-of-the-way industrial park. As she fumed in the utility company's parking lot, Maria Chavez emerged from the building, clutching a receipt.

``I just had to pay $251.94,'' said Chavez, 29. Chavez pays gas and electric for her apartment and that of a tenant. ``One bill is $75 -- it used to be $45. The other is $176, and that one used to be about $120. It's just crazy to think that this might happen again next month.''

For weeks, California residents have been warned of higher gas and electric bills. But despite the warnings, many residents were unprepared for just how much their utility bills would increase.

``Consumers are outraged,'' said Mindy Spatt, media director for TURN, The Utility Reform Network. ``We are getting tons of calls. They are angry at the utilities, angry at the Legislature, angry at the federal government. And they are frightened -- they wonder if they are going to have power.''

Rally planned today

The consumer backlash is building steam. Today, another protest march and rally is scheduled in San Francisco. Irate consumers will gather at Gov. Gray Davis' San Francisco office at 4 p.m. and march to PG&E's headquarters at the corner of Market and Beale treets downtown.

``We've got 10,000 signatures from people who are refusing to pay the electric rate hikes,'' said Medea Benjamin, a Bay Area activist and who ran for the U.S. Senate last fall on the Green Party ticket. ``Our message is simple: no rate hikes, no bailouts. We need public power now.''

PG&E has been flooded with irate calls in recent days. As rolling blackouts have rocked Northern and central California, many families have heeded the call to curtail energy use at home, particularly during peak hours.

``We get about 1,000 calls a day from customers concerned about their high bill,'' said Staci Homrig, a PG&E representative. ``Most people want to have their high bill explained to them. It doesn't hit home until you open that bill.''

PG&E has a number of local offices and ``pay stations'' across the region, where consumers can pay their bills in cash. One such pay station is the Bonfare Market, a convenience store on Thornton Avenue in Fremont.

``Everyone comes in very angry,'' said owner Pankaj Bhatt, 38, as he held up a stack of bills. Many had 48-hour cutoff notices because of late or overdue payments. ``People say that it is just not fair.''

-- Martin Thompson (, January 24, 2001

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