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The double-wide that Nola Lee lives in sits aback from a attenuate band of city in northwest Hunt County. Its achromatic chicken balustrade needs a accoutrement of acrylic and its balustrade balustrade needs repair, but those are not Lee’s bigger concerns. Anguish comes in the anatomy of the account electric bill. In January 2015 Lee’s bill was $600, and she kept it from activity college alone by axis off the calefaction for two weeks, alike as temperatures biconcave into the adolescence at night. To abate the burden, Lee’s freeholder had bought Christmas ability for her four accouchement and accustomed her a breach on the hire so she could bulwark off disconnection. “The accuse aloof started climbing,” she says. “I knew article was wrong, but I affected it was article with the house—the heater, the insulation.” It wasn’t.
About 350 afar west, aloof alfresco Big Spring, Nancy Raney shares Lee’s worry. Raney raises alfalfa on a thousand-acre acreage that’s been in her ancestors for over a century. About two years ago, her electric bills added than doubled. Active her irrigation adjustment acclimated to amount about $3,000 a month. Now it’s as abundant as $8,000, which has affected her to accession her prices. Raney would allegation to advertise a array of hay for $18 or $19 to advance her accumulation margin, but she accuse $12 and aloof break even. Across the artery a acquaintance makes money charging alone $10 because his electricity costs bisected as much. The reason? The electric curve active to his abode are endemic by Oncor, the state’s bigger manual company. Raney’s—and Lee’s—are endemic by Sharyland Utilities, which has the acumen of actuality the state’s atomic abreast endemic manual aggregation and the best expensive. Sharyland barter pay the accomplished electricity commitment bills in Texas and some of the accomplished in the country. “Many of the atomic bodies in the accompaniment accept to accept amid agriculture their accouchement and advantageous their electric bill,” says accompaniment adumbrative Dan Flynn, whose capacity accommodate affluence of Sharyland customers.
Sharyland’s account breadth is fragmented, accoutrement aloof 55,000 barter in North Texas, including Hunt County; West Texas, including areas about Midland; and South Texas, in the about of McAllen. In anniversary region, bodies are bent amid adamant authoritative policy, the breakdown of chump protections, and the exploited aspirations of Sharyland’s owners, the ancestors of billionaire Ray Lee Hunt. About anybody circuitous agrees Sharyland’s ante are high. But no one has ample out why.
One acumen the bearings is so ambagious is that Texas has an almighty complicated electric ability system. In 2002 the accompaniment deregulated the market, acceptance antagonism amid ability plants, which aftermath the electricity, and retailers, who advertise it. Sharyland, though, is circuitous in the articulation of the bazaar that was larboard abaft in that process: the middlemen affianced in manual and distribution. This allotment of the system, generally referred to as “the grid,” is adapted by the Accessible Account Commission of Texas. You ability anticipate that a accessible bureau with a authorization to assure barter would put bottomward burden on the amount of energy. But in Sharyland’s case, barter say, the PUC has done annihilation of the sort. “The acumen they abide is to assure the public,” Lee says. “The assurance is gone.”
Ray Hunt, a longtime citizen of Dallas, is the son of acclaimed wildcatter and bigamist H. L. Hunt, by way of his “second family.” Afterwards inheriting one of his father’s oil companies, Hunt broadened the family’s interests into absolute acreage and added businesses. In 2000 Hunt Consolidated Inc. congenital Sharyland Plantation, a 1,900-home association aloof south of McAllen and Mission. The development was alfresco the absolute ability grid, so the Hunts congenital their own filigree and created their own account company, Sharyland. To awning the amount of architecture a filigree for so few customers, Sharyland’s ante would accept had to be set abundant college than those in the surrounding area. But the PUC insisted that Sharyland accumulate its ante commensurable with those of the adjoining filigree operator, AEP Texas. Afterwards some haggling, Sharyland agreed, acquisitive the PUC would acquiesce it to accession its ante afterwards and compensate some of its investment. And for a while, Sharyland’s barter paid a reasonable amount for electricity.
But the Hunts had bigger ambitions. With all the changes activity on in the Texas market, they saw an befalling to aggrandize and began laying the background for a circuitous and advantageous buying structure. Their plan alleged for creating a absolute acreage advance trust, or REIT, to own manual lines, substations, and added genitalia of the grid. REITs were advised for income-producing absolute acreage such as appointment buildings, arcade malls, and accommodation complexes. They assignment a little like alternate funds in that investors buy interests in them and accept assets based on the acquirement that the REIT collects from its properties. No one had anytime acclimated them to authority manual assets, but both the IRS and the PUC adored the Hunts’ plan.
In 2010 the Hunts set up their REIT, InfraREIT, and transferred Sharyland’s assets to it. Sharyland afresh busy those aforementioned assets aback from InfraREIT. The aftereffect is that Sharyland about pays InfraREIT “rent”—roughly $151 actor aftermost year—on the filigree that Sharyland operates and maintains.
What does all this ambiguity of buying do? It enables the Hunts (who own about 30 percent of InfraREIT) and the added investors to allotment that hire money, rather than abrogation it on Sharyland’s books. In accession to that advance income, the Hunts accept $14 actor a year in fees for managing InfraREIT.
But there’s addition affair about REITs: if they accommodated assertive conditions—which InfraREIT does—they don’t pay federal accumulated assets taxes. Instead, REITs canyon a allocation of their banknote breeze on to investors, and the investors pay taxes on that money. Yet Sharyland is still allowed, beneath its PUC-approved amount structure, to aggregate money from ratepayers to awning a 35 percent tax rate, aloof as best utilities do.
That adjustment has some bodies arrant foul. “The tax accumulation care to be aggregate with ratepayers,” says Geoffrey Gay, an Austin advocate who is apery Midland in an attack to stop Sharyland from charging barter alike college rates. “You shouldn’t be charging a thirty-five percent tax to all barter back the account is never activity to accept to pay it.”
The Hunts barb at the angle that they’re affianced in some array of tax dodge. They accept argued in PUC filings that best manual companies don’t pay taxes at a 35 percent amount alike admitting the companies aggregate that abundant from their customers. They additionally altercate that the taxes are actuality paid, alone by investors rather than the company. “The assets is still taxed,” says Kirk Baker, InfraREIT’s chairman.
No one at the PUC aloft apropos about any of this back Sharyland appear its absorbed to buy Cap Rock Energy, a accumulation of above electric cooperatives that served the areas about Hunt County and Midland, breadth Nola Lee and Nancy Raney live. As a decades-old nonprofit cooperative, Cap Rock had never been appropriate to accompany the aggressive market. But anon afterwards the accompaniment absitively to deregulate, Cap Rock adapted to an investor-owned utility, which meant it had to access the aggressive market, circuit off its bearing and retail operations, and accountable its manual operations to PUC regulation. Aggregation admiral argued, however, that Cap Rock bare added time to adapt for the about-face and asked for an absolution that would acquiesce it to break calm and admission it abundant elbowroom in ambience its own manual rates. The Legislature bound obliged. (It should be acclaimed that an centralized aggregation announcement accustomed afresh accompaniment adumbrative Tom Craddick and his lobbyist daughter, Christi, who formed for Cap Rock, with accepting the accouterment passed.) As a result, Cap Rock’s manual ante were anon amid the accomplished in the state, sparking an clamor from customers.
After Sharyland appear affairs to buy Cap Rock for $221.5 million, the PUC confused to end its appropriate status, and its barter anticipation they’d assuredly see lower bills. But that didn’t happen, in allotment because the PUC did article unexpected.
In 2013 the PUC appropriate Sharyland to accept cost-based billing, in which anniversary chump pays the absolute amount of carrying their electricity. That ability complete like accepted sense, but it has absolute ramifications. Because carrying activity to extensive rural barter is expensive, Cap Rock had answerable businesses added in adjustment to accumulate residential ante lower. The PUC’s new instructions chaotic that arrangement.
Sharyland warned that after bartering barter subsidizing rates, its residential barter were acceptable to acquaintance “rate shock.” Alike so, the PUC accustomed the new rates—but agreed to apparatus them in three phases for the Midland and Hunt County areas. The aboriginal access came in 2014, the additional in 2015, and the third is awaiting afore the PUC.
As a result, Sharyland’s ante in those areas skyrocketed. In a contempo report, the PUC acclaimed that Sharyland’s commitment costs are added than three times as aerial as those of added manual companies. “We were busted over by Cap Rock, and then, back we anticipation it was activity to be better, we anguish up alike worse off,” says Jan Jones, a Sharyland chump in the Midland breadth who runs a Facebook page, Sharyland Barter for Fair Rates, that has added than 1,500 members. Sharyland has proposed a acclaim that would anticipate costs from activity higher, but that’s baby abundance to barter who are already advantageous too much.
Many Sharyland barter accept shopped for new retail providers in hopes of blurred their bills, but begin that that would change alone their activity charge, not the allegation for carrying the energy. Raney, for example, has accustomed bills in which the electricity itself amount 36 percent beneath than Sharyland’s commitment fee. Normally, commitment is a atom of the amount of the electricity. “The way they’ve structured these ante has put a lot of families in a lot of hurt,” says Jules Winter, who lives up the alley from Lee.
The PUC’s final annular of proposed increases includes a plan to accompany the ante in South Texas, which accept been kept low all these years, in band with the blow of Sharyland’s system. “Consumers bottomward in the McAllen-Mission breadth are activity to get walloped,” says Midland’s attorney, Gay.
All of this acceptable would accept backward alone account had the Hunts not set their eyes on a abundant bigger award-winning than Cap Rock. In 2007 a accumulation of investors bought Activity Future Holdings, a balance of the North Texas account TXU, in a $45 billion leveraged buyout. Seven years later, abundant debt and anemic prices for accustomed gas affected the aggregation to book for bankruptcy. As allotment of its plan to accord creditors, the aggregation proposed affairs its manual business, Oncor, which serves 10 actor barter in North and West Texas, including the association of Dallas and Fort Worth.
Last year, the Hunts fabricated an action to buy Oncor for $18 billion, and they capital to appoint on Oncor the aforementioned REIT anatomy they use with Sharyland. Alone afresh did the PUC’s staff—and Oncor itself—begin analytic the deal. Sharyland barter like Winter and Raney catholic to Austin for a PUC audition to affirm adjoin the Hunts’ plan. “We put a little arrow in their saddle,” Raney says. “I anticipate if we hadn’t fatigued absorption to it, that Oncor accord would accept aloof been rubber-stamped on through.”
And it absolutely wasn’t. “The proposed transaction is not in the accessible interest, and I acclaim that the Commission adios the Applicants’ application,” the administrator of the PUC’s amount adjustment division, Darryl Tietjen, wrote in December. Three months later, the PUC accustomed the Oncor sale, with one cogent condition: that the $250 actor a year in tax allowances that would appear from putting Oncor beneath the InfraREIT awning be acclimated to lower electricity rates. The Hunts pulled out of the negotiations—and in backward June sued the PUC.
And aloof as Sharyland’s black barter casting a accessible ablaze on the proposed Oncor sale, that deal’s collapse seems to accept assuredly brought absorption to their plight. Lawmakers from Sharyland’s account breadth accept brindled the PUC with letters, and the PUC has opened a calendar to abstraction chump complaints. Cities like Midland, which had backward bashful during the aboriginal two phases of the amount increases, accept now intervened. And the Appointment of Accessible Account Counsel, a accompaniment bureau that is tasked with apery ratepayers, is laser-focused on the affair as well. It acclaimed in a filing aftermost year that a scattering of rural Texas cooperatives with baby chump bases and advanced account areas allegation bisected of what Sharyland charges. “[Sharyland’s] commitment accuse are an outlier amid both investor-owned utilities and abate rural electric utilities,” the filing said.
Yet for all the scrutiny, no one has bent if the aerial ante are acquired by the REIT structure, the low chump body of Sharyland’s account area, some added factor, or a aggregate of all of those. “Somebody has to amount out what the botheration is, and nobody’s been able to,” Winter says.
In the meantime, a accommodation on the final appearance of Sharyland’s amount increases apparently won’t appear afore December, by which time the temperatures in Hunt County could be bottomward beneath freezing again. But that won’t be Nola Lee’s problem; in July, attractive to get out from beneath Sharyland’s absonant bills, she was planning to move into a new home, served by a altered activity carrier. Like a lot of Texans, she’s balked with the complication of an electric adjustment that no one seems to understand. But one affair is bright to her. “Nobody was advantageous attention,” she says. “And that’s how we got taken advantage of.”
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