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MLAs seek fix for high power rates
Testart, Vanthuyne take cabinet to task over what they say is a lack of leadership on energy

Cody Punter
Northern News Services
Friday, July 21, 2017

"We talk about the cost of living being a priority of this government and yet we do very little about it."

Those words could have come out of the mouth of any number of people who showed up to voice their displeasure during last week's public hearings on a proposed 12.8 per cent power rate increase over three years.

In fact it was Bob McLeod, a rookie MLA and cabinet minister in May 2008. He was sharing the frustration of Beaufort-Delta residents over their "outrageous power bills" while delivering his member's statement in the legislative assembly.

Fast forward to 2017: power rates have more than doubled, McLeod has been premier for the past six years and residents are on the brink of being saddled with yet another double-digit rate increase by the government-owned NWT Power Corporation (NTPC).

Following last week's public outcry over increasingly unaffordable power rates in the territory, MLAs are taking the government to task over its lack of leadership surrounding the rising cost of power in the NWT.

"I have consistently said that the one thing we can do to control the cost of living is to get a handle on our electricity rates and having a transformative plan to lower that cost," said Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart. "What are we doing to work towards this? We're just jacking up the rates every year."

If the utilities board approves power corp.'s latest request, power rates will have gone up by 41.2 per cent between 2012 and 2018.

A common refrain of those who made it out to last week's hearing by the Public Utilities Board was that the government did not do enough to engage the public ahead of it. Although the impending rate increase has been on the table since last summer, Testart said cabinet has been silent on the issue.

"This was not announced in the budget and it was not in the throne speech," said Testart, adding that regular MLAs have had numerous closed-door discussions with cabinet on power rates.

"It is not our job to explain what cabinet wants to the public."

McLeod declined to comment for this story as he was meeting with other premiers in Alberta this week.

Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne told Yellowknifer the current model for power generation is shrouded in secrecy and is unaccountable to elected officials and the public. In an interview with Yellowknifer, Vanthuyne explained that because power corp. is a Crown corporation, it does not have to report to the legislative assembly in the same way government departments do.

"Other departments come to us and report to standing committee before budget in the fall. Right now under their current structure NTPC does not report to MLAs," he said. "I'm in the dark on half this stuff."

Given the government has been making a push to reduce spending in recent years, Vanthuyne said it makes little sense to have one of the biggest drivers of the cost of living operating outside the assembly's control.

"The question is, is it time to get rid of the PUB and make the NTPC a government department so we can have the public representatives be accountable to what's going on with the power corporation."

Last year, the GNWT dismissed power corp.'s public board and replaced it with a board of deputy ministers. While the change was reportedly implemented to save the corporation $1 million in board salary, Louis Sebert, the minister responsible for power corp., said at the time that it would allow the GNWT to take a more prominent role in managing the utility.

"Increasingly it is the GNWT as shareholder, not the board, that is expected to answer questions related to the corporation," Sebert stated in a news release in May 2016.

Sebert declined to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement provided to Yellowknifer on behalf of Sebert, he stated the GNWT does not take rate increases lightly but "it must be understood that utilities must cover their costs to remain solvent and able to provide reliable power to residents."

He added, over the past six years the GNWT has provided more than $80 million in subsidies to power corp. in order to mitigate rate increases.

NTPC's dependence on subsidies was one of the main reasons that Michael Miltenberger, the former minister responsible for power corp., suggested dissolving the power corp. in 2014.

"The power corporation could never survive as a revenue generator, charging what they charge. If we hadn't given them this $80 million, I shudder to think what their rates would be," he told Yellowknifer at an energy conference at the time.

Vanthuyne said the current system allows the government to take credit for bailing out ratepayers when it intervenes to keep rates down, while blaming power corp. when rates go up.

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