MICHIGAN CITY – With the NIPSCO cooling tower looming behind them, the Renewable Power Rangers made their debut on Thursday evening in Pullman Park on the West Side.
The group of youngsters, some wearing capes, were introduced at a "No NIPSCO Tax Shift" Rally coordinated by the La Porte County Chapter of the NAACP and the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal initiative to fight the utility's rate hike request.
The kids cheered, sang, and 9-year-olds Hannah Rose Parkinson Kilbourne and Ella Ryszka delivered a message to the crowd of about 70 people.
"Our parents always told us to clean up our messes; and NIPSCO and these big polluters need to clean up their messes, too," Hannah said.
She also sang a song she wrote about the rate hike: "You’re going down; I'm yelling rate hike; you better move that rate hike down."
Ashley Williams of Beyond Coal said the kids understood what the rally was about.
"We're here to stop cold-blooded industries from putting profits before people," she said, referring to the rate request, which originally called for a 13 percent hike in residential electric rates, and a 19 percent cut in rates for the largest industrial customers.
"This injustice has been going on way too long," Williams said. "While NIPSCO's transition to renewable energy is a good thing, this is a historic rate hike, and low-income consumers, like those right here on the West Side, will be the most deeply impacted. We have to say no to corporate welfare."
Williams announced that while the rate hike request had been "settled" down to 7 percent, she added, "You and I still can't afford that. Those on top who can afford it are the ones benefiting and those on the bottom are being hurt."
State Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, said changing the request from 12 percent to 7 percent "is good, but not good enough.
"Heavy industry is paying 19 percent less – will they be paying their employees more? ... We need a serious intense review of this request – they need to look at the bigger picture."
She said even the average family could have trouble keeping their homes warm in winter and cool in summer – "That's the tough reality for many people."
Erik Tannehill, soup kitchen ministry coordinator at St. Paul Lutheran Church and School in Michigan City, was one of several pastors to echo those sentiments.
"I run a soup kitchen and we serve 120 to 125 meals each week," he said, "so I see people in need. I see people suffering. NIPSCO might suffer, too, from no big corporate bonuses and lower profits ... we need to fight this together."
Pastor Jacarra Williams of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church said a coordinated effort is needed.
"We have power in ourselves but it's ineffective if we don't bring ourselves together. Our people are suffering ... I want to be here for the future and rate hikes like this won't let that happen. If rates keep going up, my church won't even be able to turn on the lights and help people."
Barbara Hargrove, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Hammond, said her small congregation used to take up a collection once a month to help pay the parish's utility bills.
"NIPSCO RIPSCO rates keep rising," she said. "We now have to do a second collection to pay the electric bill" – about $7,000 in February with the Polar Vortex – "and those collections take in about $160. So where is the money supposed to come from?"
She urged the crowd to work together because, "We are a lot more people than they are."
One speaker said not just pastors and young people, but elected officials need to speak up.
Don Przybylinski, president of the Michigan City Common Council, said Michigan City has done just that, reading a resolution the council passed objecting to the rate hike.
"Michigan City took the lead on this. Of all the councils in Northwest Indiana, only Michigan City came out and opposed this, and the Common Council is truly opposed to the rate hike. ... We are totally behind no rate hike whatsoever, not 7 percent, nothing."
Rebecca Wyatt of the Gary City Council said they "copied after Michigan City" and passed a similar resolution.
"Shifting the burden to those who can least afford it is a really bad business plan," she said.
Michael Mack, a candidate for the 3rd Ward council seat in Michigan City, where Pullman Park is located, said while renewable energy is a good thing, "We should not be paying for the transition ... No transition on the backs of the poor."
And Damon Carnes, an independent candidate for mayor of Michigan City and chairman of the Northwest Indiana Ministerial Alliance, said he wants the message to get out to everyone.
"I have added this to the Ministerial Alliance agenda to get you all into churches," he told the organizers. "We need to get you into church on Sundays and let the parishioners know what's going on ... to keep the people informed and involved is so important.
"I know the suffering of our people, and when they hurt, we hurt. This rate hike will cause more pain for people who are already suffering."
The rally concluded with a poetry reading by Don "RedRah" Thomas and a dance performance by the Michigan City Soul Steppers, before a potluck barbecue picnic.
"They have the plants, but we have the power," was the closing cheer, led by Latonya Troutman of the NAACP.
Those in attendance were also invited to a Community Gathering and Post-Rally Celebration at 3 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church at 121 W. 9th St. in Michigan City.
Mike Kilbourne, whose daughter is a Renewable Power Ranger, and whose wife, Ericka, is pastor at First Presbyterian, said the kids helped him find his own voice.
"We're in a global crisis and we don't know what the environment will look like in 20 years," he said. "But I don't want my kids to ask me why I didn't try to do something about it."
NIPSCO: No rate cut for industry
Northern Indiana Public Service Company says it hears the pleas of consumers concerned about increasing electric costs, and is trying to find a way to keep those rates affordable.
"Customers have a voice and an important role in the review process, which focuses on reaching a balanced outcome," NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said in a statement.
He said contrary to what some critics are saying, rates are not going down for large industrial users, but if those large industries leave the NIPSCO system to produce their own power, it would mean even-larger increases for residential customers.
"Rates for industrial customers are not going down," Meyer said. "Instead, an option has been proposed to protect homes and businesses from experiencing even larger increases. The reason – these large industrial customers have the desire and the ability to generate their own electricity and leave the system, which would create a considerable cost burden on all other customers.
"The option that was proposed was designed to encourage these large industrials to continue purchasing at least a portion of their energy from the electricity generated by NIPSCO. So, while they might be purchasing less from NIPSCO directly in the future, the rate they would pay is not going down."
He said residential customers have options if they find themselves having trouble paying utility bills.
"NIPSCO recognizes that any cost increase to customers is meaningful, and there are options to help those customers in need," Meyer said, "whether it be through qualifying bill payment assistance programs, energy efficiency programs or other billing options. Customers are encouraged to reach out to us if they're having difficulty with their bill."