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State regulators deny utilities' request to raise electric rates to cover COVID-19 losses

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana regulators on Monday denied a request from utilities to charge ratepayers for revenue the companies expect to lose because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission voted unanimously to deny the request by utilities, who had said they needed to recover millions of dollars in lost revenue over the last few months as businesses closed their doors, and factories cut hours and used less electricity, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Hodgin.

NIPSCO, Duke Energy, Vectren and other Indiana electric and gas companies – under the banner of the Indiana Energy Association – had petitioned the commission for permission to recover revenue shortfalls.

“Under the regulatory compact, at a base level, utilities are obligated to provide safe, reliable service and customers are obligated to pay just and reasonable rates for any such service they receive,” the IURC said in its order.

“However, asking customers to go beyond their obligation and pay for service they did not receive is beyond reasonable utility relief based on the facts before us.”

The utilities filed a 36-page petition with the IURC in May in which they claimed the effects of the pandemic, including government orders and businesses closing or moving to remote locations, “resulted in significantly reduced load and revenues for some utilities.”

Indiana Energy Association president Danielle McGrath said the companies are “reviewing the order.”

The IURC also ruled Monday that disconnection moratoriums across the state should be extended by 45 days past Tuesday’s deadline through Aug. 14, Hodgin said.

“Temporarily prohibiting disconnections ... is a balanced solution that allows both customers and utilities additional time to enter into reasonable payment arrangements to address any arrearages that may have accumulated and maintain essential utility services for the benefit of all customers, the utilities, and other stakeholders,” the order said.

McGrath said, “throughout this pandemic, Indiana’s utilities have provided continuous service and flexible bill arrangements for customers, including an early decision to voluntarily suspend service disconnections to ensure that families and businesses would not have to worry about having electric or gas service because they could not pay during this crisis.”

The commission also doubled the minimum requirement for extended payment plans by requiring utility companies to offer payment plans of at least six months to all customers, according to Hodgin.

McGrath said customers have several options for relief.

“The energy companies have been in communication with their customers on payment options and customers are being urged to contact their provider to learn more about flexible payment options,” she said.

“Anyone who is having difficulty paying their bills is also encouraged to contact 211, which is a resource that connects Hoosiers with the services they need.”

While customers won’t be charged for electricity they didn’t use, such as at a closed restaurant or bar, those who struggled to pay their utility bills because of a job loss or reduced income may have to pay more later, she said.

The IURC decided to let utilities track the COVID-19 impacts on the prohibition of disconnections and late fees, “which may be considered for cost recovery in the future,” according to the order.

Just Transitions NWI, a local environmental justice group that had criticized the plan, applauded Monday’s actions by the IURC.

“NIPSCO and Indiana’s monopoly utility companies tried to take advantage of our communities during the pandemic, and they lost!” a statement from the group on Facebook said.

“This signifies a big win for Indiana and for everyone who spoke out and took action! We must keep up the pressure for an indefinite moratorium extension on disconnects because COVID-19, and the effects felt, are not over and absolutely won’t be in August.”

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La Porte County Public Library takes STEAM learning on road with new mobile classroom

MICHIGAN CITY — The La Porte County Public Library’s long-awaited Mobile STEAM Classroom has arrived and is ready for action.

Earlier this month, the vehicle – decked out with advanced STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) educational technology – arrived from its manufacturer in Colorado to the LPCPL’s Coolspring Branch, where it will stay when not in use.

Library educators will begin hosting workshops for children and teens inside the mobile classroom beginning next month, traveling to several locations across the county.

The library also plans to coordinate with school districts across La Porte County to provide special STEAM lessons with third- through eighth-grade students, giving them a chance to receive hands-on experience with technology they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

The mobile classroom will also take part in various events throughout the region, such as September’s Sunflower Fair in La Porte, allowing the public to check out the plethora of advanced devices in the vehicle.

The launch of the mobile classroom comes after several years of planning and development from LPCPL administrators, who were inspired by similar STEM-based programs in other communities. The initiative was entirely funded through the community – donations through the Unity Foundation paid for the vehicle, while a grant from the Arconic Foundation covered the technology.

Although staff had initially expected the vehicle to arrive last summer, supply-chain issues pushed its delivery back to this June.

The mobile classroom is full of advanced machinery and devices, intended to introduce students to the type of equipment used in many 21st-century industries. These include a laser cutter, digital microscopes, desktop milling machines and Dobot Magician robotic arms, which can be programmed to perform several different tasks.

The mobile classroom can fit up to 28 students at one time in seven 4-person workstations. At each desk is a small monitor that will mirror whatever is shown on the classroom’s main screen.

The van itself sports plenty of other features, including a wheelchair lift; an array of solar panels, which help reduce power consumption; and an external monitor, which allows staff to provide instruction to students outside the vehicle.

The classroom features a paint job with a vibrant color scheme and decorative elements adding to its appeal.

“You feel like you want to get inside to check what’s going on,” said Pam Okosun, an LPCPL community engagement librarian who is working with the mobile classroom program. “It just draws you in.”

The mobile classroom program ties in nicely with another major project the library will begin next month – the transformation of the former La Porte telephone exchange building, located near the LPCPL’s main branch on Indiana Avenue in La Porte.

The library plans to convert the building – which it has renamed the LPCPL Exchange – into a larger space for its existing MakerSpace, which offers a number of STEAM devices to local youth.

With the mobile classroom containing smaller versions of the equipment featured in the MakerSpace, library educators are hoping students who enjoy their lessons inside the vehicle will continue their journey inside the new building when it opens next year.

“If you’re ready for more, come see us at the Exchange,” Okosun said.

Parents interested in signing children up for upcoming mobile classroom activities can visit laporte.libnet.info/events. Slots will initially be limited to allow for social distancing.

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Hands-free driving mandatory in Indiana starting Wednesday

MICHIGAN CITY — Holding cell phones or other mobile devices while driving officially becomes illegal in Indiana on Wednesday.

The La Porte County Sheriff’s Department has spent June working with the media and running a Facebook campaign aimed at educating La Porte County residents of the change coming July 1.

“We at the sheriff’s office realize that there’s an education period to inform the motoring public,” Sheriff’s Capt. Derek Allen said. “We’re encouraging our deputies to utilize their discretion as they go about enforcing the law in its relatively early stages.”

Cpl. Mike King of the Michigan City Police Department said the decision whether to warn or ticket motorists will be left up to the discretion of MCPD officers as well during the next few months.

“I think this law’s been needed for a long time,” King said. “Distracted driving causes more problems than just about anything else. It causes accidents; and if we can avoid that with a hands-free law, I think it’s a good idea.”

Allen talked Monday of the three types of driver distraction: cognitive, visual and manual.

Cognitive distractions remove a driver’s mind from the road, he said. Visual distractions remove a driver’s eyes from the road. And manual distractions occupy the driver’s hands so they aren’t on the steering wheel.

“The law tries to limit those distractions and, in turn, reduce crashes,” Allen said.

Indiana is the 22nd state to enact a hands-free driving law, he said, noting that at least 12 of the 15 states that had such laws prior to 2018 saw a significant decrease in traffic fatalities over the course of two years after beginning to enforce hands-free driving laws.

“The objective is to increase roadway safety by requiring drivers to use hands-free technology when using a telecommunications device behind the wheel,” Allen said.

“Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds; and at 55 miles per hour, that equates to driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed.”

King said the MCPD hasn’t planned any additional patrols to target drivers who may be using their phones, and noted that it’s actually been illegal to text while driving in Indiana for several years.

“But it’s hard to enforce because we couldn’t ever ask to see their phones without a search warrant,” he said. “So, now, we’ve taken it one step further to say that you can’t have a phone in your hands, period.”

Allen said there are two major exceptions to the new hands-free driving law.

The first is that it is not illegal to use one’s phone or mobile device while driving, only to hold it. So, it’s still legal to talk on the phone using Bluetooth capability, auxiliary cable or audible speaker – although he personally advises motorists to have their phones turned off while driving.

The other exception is in case of an emergency, allowing drivers to dial 9-1-1 if necessary.

“Here in La Porte County, with it being the second largest county in the state of Indiana by square miles, our deputies are encouraged to enforce traffic laws, new and old, upon the hundreds and hundreds of miles of roadways we patrol,” Allen said.

“The new hands-free driving traffic law will greatly improve traffic safety on roadways throughout the county to increase the safety of our traveling citizens.”

The effort was a key piece of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2020 legislative agenda and was approved by the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support. Holcomb signed the measure into law on March 18.

“As drivers, we all have a responsibility to our fellow Hoosiers to limit eye and hand distractions that can result in tragic injuries and deaths,” Holcomb said.

“This law is about protecting those who travel our roads and those who build and maintain them by preventing as many crashes as possible through smart education and enforcement.”

“Drivers need to keep their eyes up, hands on the wheel and stay focused on driving to keep everyone on our roads safe,” Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe McGuinness said.

“The Hands Free While Driving law will save lives by reducing the number of senseless crashes that happen as a result of distracted driving.”

Across the United States, serious traffic crashes and fatalities have sharply increased in recent years due in large part to distracted driving, according to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute

In 2019, ICJI reported that distracted driving from mobile devices was a factor in at least 1,263 crashes and three fatal crashes.

Requiring drivers to put smartphones and other devices away and focus on driving is proven to reduce crashes and deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Three independent studies found that crash risk was 2-6 times greater when drivers were manipulating a cellphone versus when they were not, according to the NHTSA.

“Nothing on your phone or tablet justifies taking your focus off the road and putting lives at risk,” Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter said.

“Our mission is to educate drivers on the dangers of distracted driving and enforce the hands free while driving law to get every person traveling and working on our roads home safely.”

During the first few months the law is in effect, state police will focus on educating drivers on the new law and safety benefits of going hands free, Carter said.

State Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, co-authored the new law.

“Many Hoosiers use their phones while driving, which has led to injuries and even deaths that could have been avoided,” he said. “This law, along with increased awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, should deter people from driving distracted and save lives.”

Pressel said those in violation face a Class C driving infraction, and can be fined, but those ticketed before July 1, 2021, will not receive points on their license as drivers adjust to the new restriction.