Outcries Over Continued Rate Hikes Go Unheard
By TARIN NIX
If you are a Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative (JMEC) member residing within San Ildefonso Pueblo boundaries, your rates are going up. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission ruled 3-2 Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, to dismiss protest claims by JMEC utility rate users over JMEC’s rate increase announcement in September.
JMEC utility rates have been on the rise throughout Northern New Mexico since 2012, after negotiations over increased right-of-way fees from northern New Mexico pueblos and tribal nations were met with frustration and required a new avenue for recouping costs. Various pueblos and tribes have assessed millions of dollars in easement fees and various government entities’ and non-native residents have voiced extreme concern over the controversial agreements.
Despite some protests, the Commission has ruled at least six times in favor of allowing JMEC to charge their customers based off Rate Rider 19. Rate Rider 19 was approved by the Commission Aug. 14, 2012, and established a mechanism for JMEC to recover costs incurred due to a requirement that JMEC make payments to Native American governments for right-of-way access expenses. Since then, JMEC has successfully used Rate Rider 19 as the basis to pursue additional Rate Riders on utility users within the Native American government lands. Subsequently, rate riders for the pueblos of Pojoaque, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, and San Ildefonso have been approved in recent years, despite former Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar’s protests that the original Rate Rider 19 was unfairly calculated.
This argument would continue to pick up traction as JMEC utility users within the San Ildefonso Pueblo boundaries were forced into picking up the tab for Rate Rider 4 in 2014. Rate Rider 4, based off the legally supported recovery cost mechanism established in Rate Rider 19 was created after the new 25-year lease with San Ildefonso Pueblo was established for $4,706,973. JMEC territory’s main Commissioner Valerie Espinoza unexpectedly recused herself from the vote in 2014, when the Commission voted 3-1 to approve the rate hikes despite utility user protests. Now, just over a year later, JMEC has petitioned the Commission to again raise rates over 3 percent on the 820 users within San Ildefonso Pueblo boundaries.
JMEC contends and is correct that the Commission has repeatedly upheld cost recovery of tribal right-of-way fees and that the current mechanisms not only allow for them to adjust rates yearly but allow them to charge users on the back end for any costs associated with fighting protests to rate hikes.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for the 14 official protestors and 48 petitioners, as PRC Associate General Counsel Margaret Caffey-Moquin almost immediately advocated for dismissal. Despite the fact that number of protestors in the matter exceeded the minimum in rate review cases, Caffey-Moquin argued protestors failed to “raise just cause to review cause 77.” Protestors had disputed Rate Rider 4 in their claims and alleged that it was based on an unlawful recovery method that wasn’t advertised properly and that access costs being levied by a government via JMEC does not have jurisdictional authority over the paying customers.
Although she acknowledged limitations when properly assessing these rates, Caffey-Moguin noted the, “Commission has no jurisdiction to void or minimize the effect of a right-of-way agreement between sovereign nations and other entities.” Furthermore, she argued the rate riders the Commission has approved “have been decided very consistently and have resulted in lawful rates.”
Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy echoed Caffey-Moquin’s sentiments. Lovejoy defended the actions taken by Native American governments and JMEC, stating support for what she deemed to be the,”lawful rate rider as it is stated.” Lovejoy noted frustration about the merry-go-round of protests seeking easement relief. “We are dealing with matters that are between JMEC and sovereign pueblo tribes, who are lawfully making their own decisions under their sovereign government. Therefore, why are we being forced to continue circling the wagon and almost being forced to question a sovereign tribes decision to collect something that they have the right to collect,” exclaimed Lovejoy.
Yet the protestors, with the support of Northern New Mexico Protects, believe the Commission does have the jurisdiction and the ability to determine if set rates are fair and should review the recovery method used in Rate Rider 4. A sentiment that appeared to be supported by Commissioner Espinoza, who joined Commissioner Karen Montoya, in voting against the motion to dismiss the protests. Espinoza stated that she was voting, “with the rate payers and protestors, who feel they have been harmed.”
In the end, the protestors were not granted the right to a hearing but there was one statement by Caffey-Moquin that might indicate an opportunity to address the core issue she felt the current protests lacked. In her statement, Caffey-Moquin harped on the fact that these 14 protests wanted to address issues not associated with Cause 77 and if they wanted to address the legality recovery cost mechanisms, “they would need to appeal the 2013 ruling on rate rider methodology.”