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West Texas churches pray to Legislature for electricity rate relief

Champion Baptist Church in Roscoe, west of Abilene, is among several West Texas churches grappling with high power line prices. (Pastor Bruce Parsons via the Texas Tribune)

by Jim Malewitz | The Texas Tribune

Bruce Parsons, pastor of Champion Baptist Church, said he felt deflated when he delivered the church's latest monthly electricity bill to his treasurer.

It came to nearly $800, an enormous sum for a 60-member congregation that rarely spends more than a handful of hours each week beneath the steeple of its building in Roscoe, about 50 miles west of Abilene.

About 80 percent of the charges weren’t even for the electricity itself, but rather the power lines to deliver it. No matter how much the dwindling congregation of retirees and farmers tries to conserve energy — including shutting off the heat and air conditioning when they're not worshipping — they can’t thwart the sky-high prices charged each month by Sharyland Utilities, which since 2014 has become the priciest power line company in Texas.

Champion Baptist is one of several West Texas churches hoping Texas lawmakers will answer their prayers for rate relief in the final days of the Legislative session, but the odds look slim.

“We can’t survive like that,” said Janey Burke, a parishioner who in recent years has spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to local officials. “If anything is going to close our church, it’s going to be the electricity.”

While they — like most Texans — can choose retail electric providers on the competitive market, they’re stuck with Sharyland’s pricey power lines, which serve about 50,000 customers in rural North and West Texas.

Delivery rates for Sharyland residents are more than twice the state average for regulated utilities, which the utility attributes to a host of challenges, the biggest being that it has too few customers scattered over too many miles.

Sharyland ratepayers have complained to the utility and organized on social media, where a private Facebook group for aggrieved customers has united more than 2,000 members. They’ve flooded Texas lawmakers and the Public Utility Commission with letters and copies of their bills.

Churches have been hit particularly hard because Sharyland bases their charges on demand — how much electricity customers could consume — rather than how much they actually use. Though the worshippers use power only once or twice a week, the utility treats them the same as businesses operating all week long.

Christian Fellowship Church in Colorado City has closed its “House of Refuge” for families or women with no place to stay, because the congregation — which has seen energy bills as high as $700 a month — couldn’t afford to keep the lights on.

“We meet in homes on Wednesdays for prayer meetings to keep the energy costs down,” Pastor Larry Chaney wrote in a recent email to Rep. Stan Lambert, R-Abilene.

Senate Bill 1510 aimed to help. Applying only to the Sharyland service area, it would require the utility to charge nonprofit places of worship based upon how much electricity they actually use.

Filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, the bill unanimously cleared the Senate early this month but has been stuck in a House committee — perhaps permanently — after an industry group raised concerns. The Association of Electric Companies of Texas did not weigh in on the bill as it moved through the Senate, but it has since voiced opposition, arguing lawmakers shouldn’t be meddling in a process best left to the state Public Utility Commission.

“We believe that it creates a precedent that could be harmful to other utilities,” Julia Rathgeber, the group’s president and CEO told the House Committee on State Affairs at a hearing on Lambert’s House’s version of the legislation, which was killed by legislative deadlines. “AECT is very sensitive to the cost pressure that the churches face, but we believe the appropriate place for setting electricity rates is at the PUC.”

Though the House has time to advance the Senate bill, Chairman Byron Cook is not planning to push it through his State Affairs committee, Lambert told The Texas Tribune.

“These are people that don’t feel like they have much of a voice in government,” Lambert said of the churchgoers. “Hopefully this will help to push Sharyland forward, and make sure they’re committed to resolving this.”

If the legislation fails, the church folk will turn their attention to the Public Utility Commission, which is expected to decide a Sharyland rate case — a full-scale re-evaluation — within a year.

"A specific rate for churches is something that Sharyland proposed as part of its ongoing rate case, which is currently abated while we discuss settlement with all parties,” said Paul Schulze, a Sharyland spokesman.

Some customers have received partial rebates during the regulatory wrangling.

But Steve Belote, pastor of the Hallelujah Trail Cowboy Church in Eden, decided not to wait on government to solve his rate problem. Ditching the grid altogether, the church is shelling out $20,000 — with payments in the next five or six years — to buy a propane-fueled generator.

“We told Sharyland to take a hike,” he said.

Disclosure: The Association of Electric Companies in Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Sharyland Utilities customers — in homes, businesses and churches in rural West and North Texas — that are contemplating tough budget choices after nearly two years of paying the highest electric transmission and distribution rates in Texas.
  • Texans who shopped for electricity in 2014 paid more on average than folks who only had one power option — but the difference was smaller than in years past.
  • Donna Nelson, who chairs the Texas Public Utility Commission, is trying to crack down on deceptive electricity providers and make it easier for Texans to shop for electricity.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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