Rutland Herald: Marble Museum closing raises ire

May 17, 2012 No Comments by

Reposted from Rutland Herald.

 

PROCTOR — The Vermont Marble Museum owners weren’t the only ones complaining on Wednesday that dramatic hikes in their electric bills were putting them out of business.

Less than a month after Marsha and Martin Hemm announced that they planned to close the museum this fall due to a doubling in the amount they’ve paid since Central Vermont Public Service Corp., took over the town’s power distribution, the utility’s senior vice president spoke before a small gathering of business owners who had witnessed similar rate increases — or worse.

 

“It’s scary,” said June Wilson, one of the owners of Proctor Marble Company. “Our bill went from $96 a month to $480 for the same amount of kilowatts.”

 

“I don’t get how you didn’t expect us to be upset and surprised about this,” she added.

 

Joseph Kraus, senior vice president of engineering, operations and customer service for CVPS, said officials at the utility weren’t thinking about the impact on business rates when they took over the Vermont Marble Power Division last year.

 

Of the 880 power customers in town, Kraus said all but about 30 were homeowners who, while faced with a 55 percent billing increase under CVPS, won’t see the full impact on their bills until the end of a five-year gradual phase-in process.

 

The 30 businesses in town were another matter, he said. They saw substantial increases from the bills they received from VMPD — which Kraus said may have had the lowest utility rates in the state because of long-deferred investments in their infrastructure — to the same commercial rates that CVPS applies to its other customers.

 

Kraus said CVPS estimated the average increase for commercial owners at 45 percent.

 

The roughly half-dozen businesspeople who met with him at the marble museum Wednesday afternoon scoffed at that estimate.

 

“I’d really like you to find a commercial customer who will come in here and say their bill only went up 45 percent,” said Brent Wilson, June Wilson’s husband and business partner.

 

The Wilsons raised most of the complaints during the roughly 90 minute meeting, but there concerns were supported by the others in the room, including Marsha and Martin Hemm, and Franklin’s Restaurant owner Frank Beyette.

 

Much of the anger in the room was directed at the utility’s “demand charge” which increases the rate for commercial power usage that goes beyond a predetermined allocation.

 

Kraus said the charging mechanism is designed to encourage businesses to reduce their peak power usages, but the Wilson’s said that for businesses like their own, the extra charge was an unavoidable increase that accounted for about 60 percent of their billing increase.

 

After the meeting, Marsha Hemm said the Marble Museum also suffered from the demand charge and would continue to be billed at the higher rate every time the facility turned on all its display lighting.

 

Because of that fact, Hemm said parts of the museum would remain in the dark this year.

 

The announced closing of the 80-year-old museum triggered the meeting with Kraus who said his presence at the meeting on Wednesday was an indication that the utility cares about helping the historic site and the other small businesses impacted in town.

 

He didn’t offer a way to turn back the meters. But Kraus did say that he had an alternative bill rate system in mind that could lower electric bills by as much as 30 percent for the museum and other businesses in town.

 

“There’s a chance it could help manage the load and reduce the amount from what you’re paying today,” he said.

 

That announcement went a long way toward easing the tension in the room.

 

But Hemm said a 30 percent decline in rates alone probably wouldn’t be enough to keep the museum open.

 

To accomplish that feat, she said she has been talking with members of the Vermont Historic Preservation Trust and local nonprofit groups, including the Carving Studio, about converting the for-profit business into a nonprofit museum that would be eligible for grants and other funding to help sustain it.

 

“We want to keep it open. A lot of people trace their families’ roots in this country to this state, this town and its industry,” Hemm said Monday. “After we announced that it was closing, we realized how much it really does mean to a lot of people.”

 

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