HAMMONTON — About 40 people, mostly senior citizens, attended a public hearing Thursday afternoon on Atlantic City Electric’s proposed rate increase, with some saying utility bills are already straining their fixed incomes.

“Most of you look like you got an increase in your Social Security the first of the year. Remember what that was — 1.7 percent, and that was after two years after getting nothing,” said 80-year-old Hammonton resident Larry Delaney.

Cape May Court House resident Burgess “Butch” Hamer, president of the Middle Township AARP and a retired township police officer, urged the BPU to reject the rate-increase request.

“They need to think twice, if not three times, about raising the rates so everybody can afford it. There’s no joke. There are people who can’t afford it,” he said.

Thursday’s public hearing at the Atlantic County Library System’s Hammonton branch was part of the state Board of Public Utilities’ process in dealing with rate-increase requests from regulated utilities.

In December, Mays Landing-based Atlantic City Electric, a subsidiary of Pepco Holdings Inc., proposed to increase monthly rates by about 7 percent, which would amount to a $71 million increase overall.

That would raise the average monthly residential bill for a customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours by $12.69. Currently, the average bill is $182 per month.

The increase would affect the distribution part of the bill — what Atlantic City Electric charges to deliver power across its lines. It does not relate to wholesale electricity that utilities purchase from suppliers.

Several people representing organizations spoke in favor of the proposed increase for the sake of reliable energy distribution. Among them was Charles Hill Jr., an Absecon resident and business manager for IBEW Local 210, which represents about 400 Atlantic City Electric employees.

“The increase will allow the company with the efforts and plans to update an aging infrastructure that is in need of improvements,” he said. “In addition, there have been storms and other issues that have occurred beyond belief, along with the day-to-day problems that we have as a result of pole accidents and equipment failures.”

The state Division of Rate Counsel, which represents utility customers, said Thursday it has retained expert consultants to assist the office as it reviews Atlantic City Electric’s request, a common practice that can take a year. The Board of Public Utilities makes the final decision on the request.

Atlantic City Electric last increased its distribution rates in November, which led to an increase of about 2 percent, or $3.44 per month on the average monthly residential bill.

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