Duke could pass streetcar cost onto Butler County customers

Duke Energy customers in Butler County could possibly end up footing part of the bill to move power lines when the controversial streetcar system in Cincinnati is finally built.

There will be two public hearings in Butler County on a proposed distribution rate hike that could potentially add $6.50 to the electric portion of a normal residential monthly Duke Energy bill and $10.25 to the natural gas side. The first one will be in Fairfield Twp. on Tuesday and the second one will take place in Middletown on Feb. 25.

Duke and the city of Cincinnati have been dueling over who will be responsible for paying the estimated $15 million it will cost to move Duke lines to make way for the famed streetcar project. Duke filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas court Thursday, asking the court to decide who gets the bill.

A rider attached to the application for the distribution rate hike lays out a mechanism for the utility to recoup costs when a governmental entity embarks on a project that requires Duke infrastructure realignment.

Marty Berkowitz with the Ohio Consumer’s Counsel says his organization opposes the rider because it is bad precedent and bad public policy. But everything really hinges on what the court does. He said if the court finds the city is responsible for the relocation and the rider is approved, then the city would collect the money from Cincinnati Duke customers through their utility bills.

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If Duke is on the hook, that’s when customers outside of Cincinnati could come into play, according to Berkowitz.

“If Duke is found to be responsible, there is the potential that all customers can be affected,” he said. “There are many ways that they can come back and ask for collection of those costs.”

But Duke Energy officials were emphatic that customers outside of Cincinnati would not be charged.

Duke spokesman Blair Schroeder said there are a lot of misconceptions about the whole streetcar issue and the reason they asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) for the rider was to prevent customers outside of the city from bearing any burden for the streetcar.

“If we lose the court case, and let’s say this information that’s out there rallies the troops, so to speak, to the point where they come out and discourage the PUCO from approving this rider, and the PUCO does not approve this rider, the options that Duke has become increasingly few…,” he said. “Then, and only then, will we start considering how else those costs could be absorbed by our customers.”

However, the lawsuit explicitly says people outside of Cincinnati are at risk of incurring the costs.

“The relocation costs resulting from the city’s streetcar project will, by law, be borne by Duke Energy Ohio customers, potentially including those customers located outside of the city of Cincinnati,” the lawsuit reads. “If the city is successful in changing the established law, the net effect could be that customers across Duke Energy Ohio’s system would be responsible for a very substantial part of the costs of the streetcar project.”

Schroeder went on to explain that Duke has to incur costs for things like relocating lines first, then they apply to the PUCO to recoup the costs. So the rate hikes that are the subject of the public hearings have nothing to do with the streetcar since that project hasn’t even begun.

While the upcoming public hearings are on the rate hikes, Jason Gilham said people can certainly ask questions about the streetcar issue.

“We realized the sensitive nature when it comes to this topic that’s why we are holding four (public hearings) in that area,” Gilham said. “We do have a feeling that people are sensitive to this topic, just based on the attention we’ve already seen on it.”

Liberty Twp. trustee David Kern voiced concerns during a meeting Feb. 5 about the potential for Duke Energy bill to pass on the cost of the streetcar project to residents of his township and the county.

“This boondoggle of a streetcar thing that they’re pushing down there, I am 95 percent sure (they are) trying to pass part of that cost onto the residents of Butler County and other surrounding counties through the Duke Energy bill,” Kern said. “I don’t think the residents of Liberty Twp. or Butler County would like that or would approve of that. It’s intolerable.”

People can send their concerns in writing on the PUCO website at www.PUCO.ohio.gov or mail to PUCO, 180 East Broad Street, Columbus, OH 43215.

Staff writer Hannah Poturalski contributed to this report.

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