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Residents accepting of EWEB increases.

Byline: SCOTT MABEN The Register-Guard

If Eugene residents were steamed about last fall's steep increase in electricity rates, most don't hold a grudge, a new survey suggests.

"There is no strong backlash at all from the rate increase," Eugene Water & Electric Board spokesman Lance Robertson told the utility's five elected commissioners Wednesday night.

The board approved a record 36 percent residential rate increase heading into this winter after the federal Bonneville Power Administration upped its wholesale rates 46 percent.

At the same time, EWEB adopted a new tiered rate structure that charges customers a higher rate per kilowatt hour when they reach certain levels of power use.

A survey of 400 EWEB customers, conducted Dec. 10-12 after they'd received their first bills reflecting the rate changes, revealed that 36 percent believed the rate increase was not necessary, 24 percent saw it as necessary and 35 percent were on the fence.

Overall, 22 percent said the utility had no choice but to pass the higher cost of power onto ratepayers. That was the most popular reply when those surveyed were asked why they thought the higher rates were needed.

The second most common answer, at 11 percent, was "don't know." Another 9 percent blamed higher rates on "EWEB decisions and bad planning."

Older residents and those living in central Eugene were more likely to deem higher rates necessary.

The utility heard plenty of complaints from customers as they began to feel the weight of the rate hike during a time of year when electricity use is at its highest. But EWEB commissioned the $11,000 survey to reach a broad range of residents, not just those provoked to call or write.

The unprecedented rate increase probably didn't prompt a bigger outcry, pollster Rick Lindholm concluded, because EWEB has developed a "deep reservoir of trust" over the years. The utility's reputation may have helped it make the case for the 36 percent price spike, he said.

"I wouldn't recommend trying it again anytime soon," Lindholm quipped.

Commissioners were pleased with the news. "To me this seems like amazingly good results" in light of the largest rate increase in EWEB history, Susie Smith said.

And, while only 17 percent said they felt "very informed" about EWEB's new rate structure - adopted mainly to promote and reward conservation - the survey found that residents understood that the rate increase and the new tiered rates were separate issues, a finding Commissioner Peter Bartel called "extremely encouraging."

Because people generally pay more attention to issues that concern them, Lindholm said, the switch to tiered rates turned out to be not all that controversial.

Forty-three percent said tiered rates are fair, and 40 percent said the old flat rate structure was fair.

Customer satisfaction with the utility remains high, the survey showed. Two-thirds of those questioned said they receive good or superior value from EWEB services. That's a small dip from how customers rated the utility a year ago in its annual "benchmark survey."

However, EWEB's performance in two key areas - responsiveness to customers and efforts to control costs - fell since last year's survey.

The number of people who believe EWEB is doing a poor job controlling costs doubled, to 25 percent, in the past year. And those who rated cost control as an important goal for EWEB rose from 47 percent last January to 60 percent in December.

Another reason for the survey was to learn what conservation actions customers are taking to keep their bills in check. Most residents responded to higher rates with low-cost and no-cost measures.

A whopping 95 percent said they made it a habit to turn off lights and appliances when they're not using them, and 83 percent turned down their thermostat setting.

EWEB's coupons for compact fluorescent light bulbs were popular as well, with 54 percent having redeemed them. Another 53 percent said they installed caulking and weather stripping to stop drafts. Fifty-two percent put more insulation in their homes, and 46 percent installed energy-efficient windows.

The more expensive projects - converting to natural gas, installing a heat pump, putting in a wood or pellet stove - were least popular.

RATING THE RATE INCREASE

Results of selected questions from EWEB's recent customer survey

On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is "not necessary" and 5 is "very necessary," how necessary do you feel EWEB's 36% residential rate increase was?

On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is "not fair" and 5 is "very fair," how fair do you feel EWEB's old flat rate structure was?

Using the same scale, how fair do you feel EWEB's tiered rate structure is?

On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is "not well" and 5 is "very well," how well do you think EWEB's tiered rate structure encourages conservation?

How informed do you feel about EWEB's new tiered rate structure?

The survey sample size was 400 people, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. EWEB electric service customers 18 and older were interviewed by phone Dec. 10-12, after they'd received their first bills under the higher rates. Respondents were chosen randomly from a recent list of registered voters. Lindholm Research of Eugene supervised the work.

- Eugene Water & Electric Board
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Title Annotation:Rate hikes: A survey finds customer satisfaction remains high despite higher electricity bills.; Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 3, 2002
Words:871
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