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Users raise power merger fears

Foreign control of a utility and future rate hikes topped the list of fears raised Tuesday night by customers concerned about the proposed merger of Pacific Power and ScottishPower.

After officials from the two companies laid out potential benefits of the multimillion-dollar deal, they fielded questions from a skeptical and sometimes emotional audience of about 40 people at North Medford High School.

I'm very much against foreign investment in this country, said Helen Bain, the first to speak. We are our own people and we don't need foreign money.

You are going to raise our rates, Jean Jeldness said later, disbelieving assurances that the combined company is committed to keeping rates low. That's the only way you are going to meet these obligations.

Other issues were raised, including Pacific Power's closure of its Medford office and downsizing efforts of two years ago. Many wondered why the company couldn't improve service without taking on a foreign partner.

Dennis Steinberg, Pacific Power's senior vice president, said the deal will speed the company's efforts to improve customer service and efficiency.

A few people spoke in favor of the deal, impressed with ScottishPower's pledged support for community service programs and its customer service record.

Tuesday's meeting was held by the Oregon Public Utility Commission to gather public comment about the proposed deal. None of the three PUC commissioners were present but John Thornton, one of 11 staff members researching the merger and making recommendations to the commission, was there.

No decision is expected until October and the pivotal hearing before the commission won't happen until late July. The merger is currently wading through the regulatory waters in the six states Pacific Power serves, any one of which could block it. Thus far, the Oregon commission's staff -- which makes a recommendation but not the final decision -- hasn't been convinced that the merger is in the public's interest, a requirement under state law.

ScottishPower hasn't committed to cutting rates and is banking on improved customer service to build support. While rates and service have been the focus of regulators, the deal's foreign component was foremost in the minds of many who spoke Tuesday. The deal would mark the first time a foreign company has bought a U.S. utility.

We fought the Revolutionary War to get out from under the British and I don't care if your name is ScottishPower, you're still British, said Barbara Gray. We don't need another Boston Tea Party or another Revolutionary War.

Company officials pointed out that Pacific Power will have a significant voice in the combined company and that seven U.S. companies own utility businesses in the United Kingdom.

We're two nations that trade and exchange investments, said Alan Richardson, the ScottishPower official who would take over as Pacific Power's chief executive. The commitments are strong in both directions.

After the meeting, Richardson also said he will be based in Oregon, having already taken up residence in Lake Oswego, and emphasized that decisions will still be made here.