LAKE CRYSTAL — The Lake Crystal City Council didn't book a big enough room in the rec center for a public meeting Thursday night.

Some 200 angry residents filled the room and spilled out into the halls as they sought answers to why their electric bills have risen more than 38 percent since 2009, including steep increases that hit this summer.

"My utility bill was $739 last month and $699 this month," said one man. "Why is it costing a single-family home so much for electricity?"

Another woman echoed what several others said about the high costs making it nearly impossible to sell a home in the town or for businesses to survive.

"Main Street is almost dead. We can't get businesses in here because of the cost of electricity and taxes. I feel like we're just waiting for that last nail to be put in the coffin."

Several business owners talked of paying $3,000 to $4,000 per month in utility bills. "I'm never going to get my feet on the ground with these utility bills," said a bar and grill owner.

One man said his utility bill takes one third of his fixed income, while a young mother making $10.15 per hour said her bill makes her choose between the electric bill and her kids.

Another man trying to sell his home said he had an interested buyer, until they saw the electric costs. "I don't know how you're going to sell a house here."

(While the electricity cost is the majority of residents' utility bills, the bills also cover water, sewer and waste pickup.) 

The city, in 2009, signed a contract with Heartland Consumers Power District of South Dakota to supply power to the city. The contract runs through 2041.

Mike Malone of Heartland said the public utility bases its rates on its cost. "We're not a profit-motivated entity."

He said the company has been squeezed by stricter federal rules on coal plants. The company generates much of its power from coal and has considerable debt from building a new coal plant.

He said proposed EPA rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants are hurting and could force them to close coal plants, which could raise rates by 50 percent more by 2020.

And he said the company had to spend $800 million on one of its Wyoming plants to clean up haze that was affecting national parks.

The city buys its power from Heartland and a three-member public utilities commission, appointed by the council, sets the rates residents will pay.

City Administrator Mike Harmon, who was not in his position when the contract was signed, said the higher rates the commission has set cover actual electric and city utility-related overhead costs, but said the city is not using the electric rates to rake in money for the city. 

The city has its own power generating plant that it uses to supply some power when needed during peak usage times. But that power is even more expensive — about 24 cents per kilowatt-hour compared to the 9.4 cents the city pays Heartland.    

While leading the meeting and allowing anyone to ask questions or make comments, Mayor Brad Ahrenstorff said he didn't have the answer to what one man asked: How are we supposed to pay these high bills?

"I'm not happy with the rates any more than you are," Ahrenstorff said.

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