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February 13, 2007

The Electric Man Cometh

UI’s Steve Bravar. Photo/Sharon Bass

By Sharon Bass

A guy from UI spoke to the Dunbar Hill Civic Association last night to say it’s not the electric company’s fault rates are going up 47 percent this year. It’s the fault of deregulation, which opened the golden gates for a new middleman to enter the electric scene. Wall Street.

Since Wall Street and other investors who have bought a piece of power have just one single, narrow mission -- to make money and lots of it -- getting rid of deregulation (which would get rid of the middleman) may be the only way to keep the electricity from flying higher.

But most of all, Steve Bravar, UI’s corporate communications director, wanted to let Hamden know why the rates are going through the roof and why it isn’t his boss’ fault. UI only distributes the electricity. It doesn’t generate it so it has to go to market to buy it. And therein lies the devil that has given Connecticut the distinction of having the highest kilowatt-hour rate in the country, save Hawaii. UI must pay their generators' escalating prices and has to go through middlemen to make the deals. And those middlemen want to cash in, too, to the tune of about 10 percent, Bravar said..

“Just a little reminder,” 7th District Councilman Mike Colaiacovo said to the group before introducing Bravar. “Steve is the messenger. He didn’t increase our rates.”

Bravar told the 20 folks who came to hear him at the Dunbar Hill Firehouse about legislative Bill 7098. It calls for giving electric companies the ability to enter into longer-term contracts and to deal directly with generating companies; the latter was stripped when deregulation was ushered into Connecticut in 1998. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing today in front of the Legislature’s Energy Committee in Hartford.

Bravar threw out some dizzying numbers. The rate increase means UI’s 730,000 customers will be collectively billed an extra $40 million a month. UI has 21 percent of the state wired. The average Connecticut home uses 700 kilowatt hours a month. Just four or five years ago, it was 400 to 500, he said, attributing the rise to people buying more high-tech gizmos that suck a lot of juice. What he didn’t mention is that UI is reportedly earning an 11 percent profit, when the state caps it at 9 percent. (Read Melinda Tuhus’ New Haven Independent story on how that city is trying to tackle the problem and UI's profits.)

The increase will be done in three steps: 1) As of Jan. 1, 22 percent; 2) April 1, “20-something” percent; 3) July 1, 5 percent. When all phased in, the average home electric bill will go from $107 to $154, Bravar said.

“It’s tough for every customer and the only way it’s going to change is making changes in the state deregulation law,” he said. “What deregulation did was put energy on the table. People who wanted to buy in and take the risk can make a lot of money.”

He said large Wall Street firms started buying energy about two years ago and “they’re one of the culprits. They’re using the system to make money.” And the money they make comes from the consumer’s pocket.

From Whence it Came

The state’s 1998 electric deregulation bill was shaped by the infamous Enron, with much support from the attorney general and a quick sail through the state Legislature, said Bravar. Thought was it would lower electric bills.

“So what happened?” a man asked.

Well, continued Bravar, when deregulation went into effect electric companies were given the choice of either owning the generating or distribution portion. UI went with distribution. It owns the wires and poles. “We are the FedEx of electricity,” he said. “Where we do make our money is service charges and other small charges. UI does not make a profit off the energy.”

Since 1996, Bravar said the New Haven-based power company bought from generators (who must be on a state bid list) in three-year blocks. The rate stayed fairly steady with just minor jumps. On Dec. 31, 2006, the last contract expired and the next day, a new rule from the state Department of Public Utility Control went into effect. Contracts can only be for six months, which Bravar said is not a competitive practice.

“In the utility business, six months is a heartbeat,” he said. “We’re small, UI. When we are forced to buy power in six-month blocks …”

Mike Crocco (7th District Democratic committee member) and civic association president Bill Burns asked a number of times where UI buys its electricity from, but Bravar said he couldn’t recall any of the names of the generators his company uses.

“A nameless entity gets $40 million more a month?” said Burns. “Why not go back to regulation where you generate and you control local dealings and bypass the middleman?”

Crocco said he left UI and signed up with Levco, an energy vendor promising a lower price on the generation part of the electric bill.

“If you can get a better deal, more power to you,” said Bravar.

UI is cutting corners, he said. The firm now employs 850-900 people, “significantly” fewer than pre-dereg days, he said. Asked what the CEO earns, Bravar said $500,000 but didn’t know how much the top gun gets in bonuses.

After giving common energy-saving tips, such as insulating pipes, the man from UI said it is imperative that people contact their state reps about Bill 7098.

“A 50 percent increase is hard to swallow,” said Colaiacovo, “but now I completely understand with the deregulation how the rate increase came to be.”

Burns was clearly annoyed that just 20 people showed. The only elected official was Councilman Colaiacovo, who represents that district and regularly attends those civic meetings.

“Where was everyone?” Burns said, noting he made phone calls, sent e-mails and put notices in local newspapers. “People deserve what they get because they don’t give a rat’s butt.”

February 5, 2007

Pretty Damn Clear

Conservative radio talk show host Kristafer is Clear Channel’s answer to axing popular liberal commentator Franken, et al

By Sharon Bass

Say goodbye to Al Franken, Randi Rhodes and the rest of the gang on Air America who dissect the wrongdoings of neocons, like the Iraq War, the Cheney energy bill, etc. As of today, ESPN Radio is taking over the local 1300 AM dial. And owner, corporate media goliath Clear Channel, is redirecting folks to WELI’s Jerry Kristafer for chat time. A very different kind of chat time, where neoconic idealism is touted instead of trashed.

Clear Channel made an announcement on the Internet about the switch from liberal gab to sports.

Thanks to each and every one of you for being such loyal on-air/on-line listeners to the VOICE Progressive Talk Radio 1300 (theVOICE1300.com).

Effective Monday, February 5th, 2007, WAVZ-AM's program format will switch to sports as ESPN Radio 1300 (espnradio1300.com).

You're also invited to tune in to News/Talk960WELI (960WELI.com) for Local New Haven News, Traffic, Weather, & Sports... plus local information & coverage of events in your community on the News/Talk960WELI Morning Show with Jerry Kristafer, weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.

Again thank you for your support of the VOICE Progressive Talk Radio 1300.

“It’s a shame that once again a voice other than a conservative voice has been silenced just because it’s not making enough money. It’s not that they’re not making money, they’re not making enough money,” said Steve Kalb, a former newsman and talk show host for WELI, and current HDN columnist. “Another voice just goes away.”

It seems to be all and only about money. As Kalb reported last month, Clear Channel axed its local news staff on WELI and is now importing “local” news from a hub in Syracuse, N.Y. It’s cheaper that way.

“It could be wedding marches or Elvis all the time. Whatever might get them a listener today without spending a dime,” said Kalb.

Clear Channel owns about 1,200 radio stations across the country, including eight in Connecticut -- WAVZ-AM, WELI-AM and WKCI-FM in New Haven; WPOP-AM, WWYZ-FM, WPHH-FM, WKSS-FM and WHCN-FM in Hartford.

February 2, 2007

‘It’s a Scream I’ll Never Forget’

290 Four Rod Road.

Firefighter/neighbor recalls today’s tragedy on Four Rod Road

Story and photos by Sharon Bass

Hamden fire Capt. Dennis Baker has been on the beat for 29 years and never in his life, he said, has he ever been so impacted by a fire as he was when the house across the street went up in flames early Friday morning, claiming the life of Norman Stewart, 63, who lived with his girlfriend at 290 Four Rod Road. It marked the town’s first fatal fire in three years.

“I heard the screaming. It woke me up,” said Baker, who lives at 281 Four Rod Road. “I looked out the window and saw the flames rolling out the windows so that told me the flames were burning for a while. I called 911. I got dressed. I ran outside. She [the girlfriend, Patricia Rice] saw me and came running over to me saying, ‘Mr. Baker, get my husband out, get my husband out.’ I ran across the street and the fire was just too intense. I couldn’t get within 10 feet of the house.” Help had not yet arrived.

A burned couch taken outside.

“My wife tried to console her. She didn’t have any shoes or nothing on her feet. She was just waiting for the fire trucks,” the fire captain said.

Baker made it clear he was not the first to come to Rice’s aid. “The couple at 300 Four Rod Road had approached the house and kicked the door in,” he said.

Fire Chief David Berardesca said 25 firefighters, including four volunteers from the Mix District Fire Company, were dispatched to the blazing Rod Road home.

Fire Marshal Badamo on the scene hours after the fire was doused.

According to acting Fire Marshal Brian Badamo, the fatal fire started at 2:42 a.m. Friday, gutting the left side of the ranch house. Rice reportedly jumped out of a bedroom window to safety and incurred mild injuries. She was treated at the Hospital of St. Raphael and discharged, said a nursing supervisor. Stewart was in the family room, where the fire is believed to have originated, and could not be rescued. Two smoke alarms found inside the home had no batteries.

Badamo said it will take two to three days for the state fire marshal to investigate the cause of the fire but it is believed that the trigger was either a space heater or an overloaded power strip. He said the home’s gas fire boiler broke last September and was not fixed. Instead, about 15 space heaters were strewn across the house, plugged into power strips. Badamo theorized that either something flammable got too close to a space heater, a heater got knocked over or the power strips, of which he said there were about 15, were not rated for such high voltage and sparked the flames.

One of the scorched power strips.

Stewart died of smoke inhalation, the fire marshal said, although the man’s body was charred when Badamo reached the scene. For two hours, he said, he had to work around Stewart’s body before it was removed.

“It’s tragic,” said Mayor Craig Henrici. “I’ve knocked on that door campaigning. I’m familiar with that house. I used to live in the neighborhood. And my heart goes out to his friends and family.”

290 Four Rod Road gets boarded up.

“I spent 29 years woken up by bells and sirens informing me to go to a fire,” said Baker. “This is the first time I was woken up by screams of someone actually in a fire. I know I will hear her screaming for the next couple of nights. It’s a scream I’ll never forget. I do this for a living and it affected me differently being my neighbor. Someone running up to me asking me for help and knowing I could do nothing.”

Stewart was a former North Branford police officer.


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