Berkeley / East Bay
Gray Panthers Newsletter
February 2016

6501 Telegraph Ave.- Oakland CA 94609

Tel: (510)595-9696
Email: GrayPanthersBerk@aol.com
Website: http://berkeleygraypanthers.mysite.com


February Membership meeting

February 2016 Meeting will be held at North Berkeley Senior Center on Wednesday, February 24 at 1:30pm. There will be a presentation on Black Lives Matter

Labor Chorus at Redwood Gardens

On March 8, celebrating International Women's Day, there will be
a performance by the Rockin' Solidarity Labor Heritage Chorus
Other performers may participate.
It will be held 7pm to 10pm at Redwood Gardens, 2951 Derby Street, Berkeley.
The performance is a public event, but donations are encouraged as a fund-raiser for the Gray Panthers.



Board Meeting

Board Meeting 2:00pm Wed, Feb 10, 2016 at Niebyl-Proctor Library

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Join the Panthers!

Get this newsletter in the mail! Become a member of Gray Panthers!
Dues: $35/year ($15 low income)
Send a check with your name and mailing address to Gray Panthers of the East Bay, 6501 Telegraph Ave.- Oakland CA 94609.

NOTE -- Traffic Tickets can also be worked off by volunteer work for Gray Panthers

Living Graveyard

Third Mondays, Noon - 1:00 pm. date subject to change –– check www.epicalc.org
Oakland Federal Building, 1301 Clay Street (two blocks from 12th Street BART)
People lie down in front of the Federal Building, covered with sheets to represent the dead. Names of some Californians who have died in Iraq and the names of some Iraqi dead are read during the event. A gong is sounded after each name.
Please bring a white sheet. A pad to lie on is recommended.

Other News and Information

WARNING: scam! People are being called by "tech support" to fix non-existent problems with your computer. ALWAYS hang up in their ear.

The “Lawyers in the Library” program offers free consultation and referrals on a wide variety of issues including landlord/tenant disputes, probate matters, employment problems, and other issues. Go to http://oaklandlibrary.org/services/lawyers-library

Tax the Rich Rally

TAX THE RICH RALLY meets every Monday 4pm to 4:45pm at the top of Solano Ave in Berkeley (rain cancels) to protest the inequality of taxes in our country. We hold signs saying “Tax the Rich” and “Tax the Big Corporations.”

Monthly Peace Rally

Every 3rd Friday, Gray Panthers and Strawberry Creek Lodge sponsor a Peace rally, at Acton and University in Berkeley. Next rally will be on Friday February 19, 2-3 pm.
Come sing, wave signs, listen to approving honks from passing cars and trucks. For more info, Call Fran Rachel at 841-4143

Report on TURN Talk

At the Gray Panther general membership meeting on January 27,2016, the speaker was Ana Montes from The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy which has been around for over 40 years.

TURN is small, operating with a staff of 16. At least one TURN staff member always attends meetings of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

TURN began at the kitchen table of Sylvia Siegel, a fierce advocate who was tired of seeing her electric bills go up year after year. She realized all Californians were getting ripped off by a Public Utilities Commission that rubber-stamped rate hikes. She taught herself the complex laws and rules of utility rates and quickly learned how to use them to the benefit of the public, rather than corporate profits.

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(TURN report -- continued)

The initials TURN used to stand for "Toward Utility Reform Now" but this has been changed to "The Utility Reform Network."

TURN documents all complaints about utility service and billing; TURN also is a source of information for dealing with utility companies. TURN covers only California state-wide issues; they do not have the resources to deal with all the local municipal issues.

TURN believes no one should be cut off from essential electricity, gas or phone service. They hold utility corporations like PG&E accountable by demanding fair rates, cleaner energy and strong consumer protections.

TURN gets its funding from the Intervenor Compensation Fund, which comes from a fee collected by the California Department of Insurance. Other consumer watchdog groups can apply for money from the Intervenor Compensation Fund .

Ana passed out several key fact sheets, produced by TURN. One sheet summarized the focus of TURN’s activities:

Help with Paying Your Bill

Another TURN fact sheet explained how to get help paying a utility bill. There is:

Additionally, the Salvation Army provides emergency services for the truly desperate.

TURN has a website http://www.turn.org/ which includes a form to file a complaint.

Their headquarters is at 115 Sansome Street, Suite 900 San Francisco CA 94104.

Their phone is 415-929-8876

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CPUC

Ana gave some details about the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). A small number of the audience was familiar with the CPUC. Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington said he has testified before the CPUC numerous times.

The CPUC has 5 commissioners, each appointed by the Governor for a 6-year term.

Michael Peevey, president of the commission for over 12 years, stepped down in 2014, after some controversy about his being too cozy with PG&E. Some people think that, in general, the CPUC is friendlier to utility companies than helpful to utility customers. TURN spoke out constantly about Peevey’s policies. TURN supports commissioners who have a good voting record – supporting consumers. Ana noted that for many years there were no good voting records, because the other commissioners tended to do whatever Peevey wanted.

Few members of the public show up for CPUC meetings. TURN always has a representative at CPUC meetings. Ana said that any of us would make a big impact if we appeared at a CPUC meeting. Sometimes TURN takes people to these meetings.

TURN helped defeat the re-appointment of commissioner Rachel Chong, who had worked to de-regulate public utilities. She was responsible for eliminating a lot of consumer protections for telecommunications services – deregulating service providers (it was she who make calling information at 411 not a free service. TURN took a lot of people to Sacramento for that lobbying effort. Other groups were also involved

Some dirty dealing goes on. A representative of a Food Bank once testified that people can afford the proposed rate increases (he was probably paid off by utility companies).

PG&E recently increased their utility rates. January 2016 bills were noticeably higher. People who are poor and who are enrolled in the CARE program and use minimal energy probably won't be affected. However, if you are poor and use life support machines, breathing machines or charge wheelchair batteries (or charge computer batteries or keep a TV on all night) you may see rate increases, because those devices use a lot of energy.

More Increases Coming

There will be a public hearing about yet more rate increases at the Elihu Harris building in Oakland, in late April or early May (one at 2pm one at 6pm). TURN will put out a notification. For public comments it important to get there early, because the later you get there the longer the speaker list is. Ana noted that recently, at least one CPUC commissioner shows up. There is also an administrative law judge and a person who is writing down what everyone says.

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Rate Scam

Many seniors have been getting phone calls about lower gas bills if you subscribe to some other company. Ana said she doesn’t have hard data on savings achieved by subscribing to one of the alternate companies, but people have told her that they only saved a few dollars; some said they were ripped off – their gas bill actually increased. She advised the audience to get something in writing before signing up. The fact is that PG&E doesn’t make a lot of money from selling natural gas; they pass on their costs to the consumer. PG&E really is the best deal.

SmartMeters

Ana asked how many have the new SmartMeters, the ones that are read remotely via the cell phone services? About half the audience raised a hand.

PG&E strongly pushed the SmartMeters, as part of a national drive to reduce billing costs. There was a lot of protest. SmartMeters can benefit the electric company by:

It’s supposed to be possible for a consumer to log into a website and call up a page that tells how much electricity they are using, but Ana says she has not been able to do this.

There have been reports of mistakes caused by using SmartMeters.

PG&E customers who want to opt out of SmartMeters are required to pay a one-time $75 fee and a monthly charge of $10. Low-income customers pay an initial fee of $10 and a monthly charge of $5. The fees are to cover the costs of installing analog meters on homes that have SmartMeters but want to switch back, plus the cost of paying workers to read the analog meter each month. After three years, the fee is no longer charged. The fee was going to be $500, but TURN lobbying brought it down.

Understand Your Bill

Ana advised us to learn to read our PG&E bill. It takes some effort; Ana said she didn’;t know how top read hers until she started working at TURN. If something looks wrong, file a complaint. Be sure to complain to PG&E first; don’t contact the CPUC unless you don’t get resolution from PG&E.

Meter errors do happen. There can be a delay in the billing process so some usage is billed long after it took place. TURN has heard from people who were billed for stuff from the previous year – “oh, we made a billing mistake, so we’re going to charge you now.” You can’t be billed for a utility error older than 3 months. Ana suggested that utility companies put out information that is deliberately confusing and hard to understand.