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Quick and Dirty

Out of Power

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 5/3/2006

Who in this town is speaking up for the disadvantaged when it comes to protecting them from the pending utility rate increases scheduled to smack Maryland consumers in July?

Almost no one, it seems. So Ricky Johnson, a community activist and candidate running for a seat on the state’s Democratic Central Committee, has decided to take it upon himself to make the voices of the disabled, the working poor, the non-working poor, and the elderly heard.

Last week Johnson sent letters to Mayor Martin O’Malley, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the state Consumer Protection Agency, the Maryland Public Service Commission, the Attorney General’s Office, and his district’s representative on the City Council, Agnes Welch (D-9th), informing them that he was circulating a petition in Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods to complain about “unjust” billing practices and pending 72 percent utility rate increases to be instituted by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Though his letters lack specifics, the message they send is clear: The way the state and BGE are instituting the July rate hikes is unacceptable and likely to hurt the city’s poorest residents the most.

“What caused me to begin on this endeavor is the security guard who works here in my building,” Johnson says. “She has a daughter and a grandson she’s raising, and she started to get a series of bills that she considered unjustifiable billing.” When Johnson helped her interpret the bills, he realized that she was being billed on BGE’s budget plan and that her monthly payment had already been raised to reflect the rate hikes coming in July. “She realized that if this thing continues she would be wiped out,” Johnson says. “The rate hikes aren’t even supposed to come until July, but she is being billed for it now.”

Johnson says she asked him to help her figure out what to do, so he sent the letters to various officials to let them know that he and other citizens are “outraged” and “at a loss” about how to afford the increases. He says the Consumer Protection Agency and the Attorney General’s Office both responded to the letters, but the mayor, governor, and Councilwoman Welch did not. Who, he wondered, is looking out for the interests of the city’s most vulnerable citizens in the BGE negotiations?

“Citizens have to rely completely on what is going on in Annapolis. They don’t feel like they have a voice in this,” he says. “We need to alleviate the stress these bills are placing on the working poor, the disabled, the senior community. If this 72 percent increase is allowed to continue, no matter how they work it in Annapolis, it will create a severe problem in Baltimore City—a severe crisis.”

So far Johnson has gathered the signatures of about 100 Southwest residents who are afraid of what impact the rate increases will have on them and would like to see someone speak up on their behalf. Unfortunately, he says, most low-income people don’t think any relief is on the way for them this summer.

“They are so used to having somebody’s foot on their neck that they just take it in stride,” he says. “They feel as if there is no answer, no solution. . . . They are just waiting for the inevitable.”

Perhaps his petition will inspire someone in power to prove them wrong.

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