Nova Scotia opposition politicians directly questioned and publicly admonished a top executive at Nova Scotia Power at Province House in Halifax on Wednesday.
The utility's chief operating officer Mark Sidebottom was one of 10 people called before the legislature's public accounts committee to talk about the company's proposed 10 per cent electricity rate increase over three years.
Although senior officials at the company agreed to testify, they warned the committee beforehand they would not answer specific questions about the rate application. A representative from the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, as well as two provincial deputy ministers, indicated the same.
That's because although the company filed its application in January, the formal regulatory hearings before the board have not started yet.
Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire called the warning "offensive."
"Even before you sit in this committee you send these letters to us saying that you don't want to, nor will you answer questions," said the Halifax Atlantic representative. "I've never seen anything like this in my eight years on this committee."
Maguire suggested the proposal for a 10 per cent price increase over three years couldn't be coming at a worst time.
"The cost of living is absolutely crushing Nova Scotians and at that time Nova Scotia Power have the audacity to put forward a 10 per cent rate increase on the backs of Nova Scotians," said Maguire. "People are defaulting on their rent and their mortgage payments, and I know this because I've been an MLA for eight years and I've heard it."
In response to this question and others like it, Sidebottom repeatedly told committee members: "There's never a good time to ask for an increase in electricity rates."
The executive said the company needed the increase, which includes a request for a larger guaranteed rate of return, to cover the company's rising costs and to continue to make it attractive to investors.
"So that sounds good — that there's never a good time to have these increases," Maguire shot back. "Yet every time we turn around, it seems like it's a good time to have all-time high executive payouts.
"We're seeing all-time high bonuses. We're seeing executives at Nova Scotia Power and Emera become millionaires on the back of Nova Scotians."
That comment was a reference to the fact top executives at Nova Scotia Power and its parent company, Emera, profited from hefty bonuses and other benefits in 2021.
New Democrat MLA Claudia Chender wasn't as blunt with her criticism of the proposed increase, but acknowledged "news of the rate increase has caused a lot of consternation right across the province."
"People are upset because they can't pay their bills already and we know that 37 per cent of Nova Scotia households experience what is defined as energy poverty, so more than six per cent of your after-tax income is spent on home energy," she told Sidebottom. "That's a massive number of people who struggle every month to pay their power bill."
During the spring sitting, the PC government updated the law that governs the utility and review board, but government members voted down amendments to that bill that would have allowed the board to create a special power rate for Nova Scotia Power customers who don't earn much money.
That concept was championed by the NDP, which led Chender to ask the utility if it would support a new customer rate designed to help low-income families.
Longbottom responded: "Nova Scotia Power would be receptive, in fact supportive of understanding what could be a solution around this."
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