Consumer groups testify Manitoba Hydro can get by with less

In final arguments to the Public Utilities Board, consumer groups said Manitoba Hydro's proposed rate increase of 7.9 per cent is unreasonable, and a much lower increase of 2.95 per cent is more appropriate.

Consumer Association says a rate hike of 7.9 per cent is too much, 2.95 per cent is sufficient

Consumer groups say they want to send a message of accountability to Manitoba Hydro by asking the Public Utilities Board for a lower rate hike over a longer period of time. (CBC)

The message from consumer advocates has been loud and clear: Manitoba Hydro can get along with less.

A coalition of the Consumers Association of Canada, the Public Interest Law Centre and Winnipeg Harvest gave final arguments Wednesday at the Public Utilities Board hearings into Manitoba Hydro's request for a 7.9 per cent rate increase annually until 2024.

"The voices of consumers just spoke really loudly. The 7.9 is just too much, too fast, and not something that the majority of consumers can accommodate," said Gloria Desorcy, Manitoba executive director at the Consumers' Association of Canada.

Manitoba Hydro's debt rose $1.9 billion in the past year because of expenditures related to major projects in the province's north.

The coalition contracted a number of independent experts to look at rate increases, their impact and what Hydro needs financially to deal with its debt.

"An expert indicated that from the perspective of the markets, it wasn't really necessary for Hydro to bring down their debt-equity ratio that quickly," Desorcy said.

"That meant that 7.9 for the next six years was not necessary and we could go back to something more like the 3.95 that was kind of the plan in 2014."

The coalition said a smaller increase of 2.95 per cent over a longer period of time would deal with the debt and be easier for the public to take.

"Part of the reason for choosing 2.95 was because we were really thinking about sending a message of accountability to Manitoba Hydro, and that was another message we heard loud and clear from consumers," Desorcy said.

Desorcy said the group filed a freedom of information request for the 2,300 comments from the public on the PUB's online forum. More than 90 per cent of respondents were not want to see 7.9 per cent, but some were prepared for a partial increase, Desorcy said.

"The voices of consumers just spoke really loudly," Desorcy said. "The 7.9 is just too much, too fast and not something that the majority of consumers can accommodate."

People commenting on the online forum also said they were not happy about having to pay for issues Hydro should be dealing with.

"We heard consumer after consumer say, 'When I get into trouble with my own bills, when I get overextended, I can't turn to someone and say, "Increase my revenue," but Manitoba Hydro can,'" Desorcy said.

"So I think our thinking on the 2.95 was really to send a message that Manitoba Hydro really has to be accountable for the decisions that they have made."

The PUB is hearing closing arguments from interveners for the next several days.