Last week, FirstEnergy announced 2004 profits of $878 million, more than double its 2003 figure, when the company plunged the entire East Coast into darkness as a cost-saving measure.
CEO Anthony Alexander said his latest success was due largely to increased electricity demand. Investors also cheered the payoff of $1 billion in debt. "How'd we do it?" asks spokesman Ralph DiNicola. "We had strong performance from our plants, and we were successful in our efforts to control costs."
But both men seem to be forgetting something. That would be FirstEnergy's multibillion-dollar welfare subsidy.
Back in 2000, a private consultant found Ohio consumers should pay the company $2.6 billion for power plants it built prior to energy deregulation. Yet Rob Tongren, Ohio's consumer counsel at the time, hid the report, instead deciding to let FirstEnergy collect $12.6 billion. Tongren's sellout left FirstEnergy customers paying among the highest utility rates in the country.
The insider deal was supposed to expire in 2006. But then the company decided its customers should pay another $1 billion annually for "rate stabilization," which would guarantee our right to pay the same high rates till 2009. The Public Utilities Commission, recently named "Best Lapdog" at the Westminster Kennel Club Show, approved the scam.
"They took the exact same amount, penny for penny," says Ryan Lippe, spokesman for Ohio's new consumer counsel, Janine Migden-Ostrander. "All they did was rename it, and the PUCO went along with it. We consider that to be illegal."
Migden-Ostrander took FirstEnergy to court over the plot; she's awaiting a reply from the Ohio Supreme Court. Yet DiNicola claims there's a silver lining to being screwed. "This agreement insulates our customers from future increases in price," he says.
Well, not exactly. The guarantee is ironclad -- unless the cost of fuel goes up, at which point FirstEnergy can ask the PUCO for another hike. Which means, of course, that we're essentially paying $1 billion a year for nothing. "When was the last time you saw fuel prices go down?" Lippe asks.
Festival of scabs
The latté and turtleneck crowd is hoping to redeem its spotty history of labor oppression.
Since 1977, the Cleveland Film Society has used union projectionists for its annual film festival. But this year the society got caught up in a larger fight between the projectionists' union and Jonathan Forman, owner of Cleveland Cinemas, which manages Tower City and other theaters around town.
Last year, Forman locked the union out of his theaters. A loophole in the contract said that projectionists could be replaced only by "managers." So Forman decided to make everyone a manager, from the ticket taker to the popcorn kid. The projectionists have been protesting at Forman's Cedar Lee ever since.
Now the bossman is returning fire. "Forman told the film society in no uncertain terms that if they negotiate with us, he'll lock them out of Tower City so they can't have their film festival there," says union chief John Galinac.
At first blush, the society would seem to have no choice but to side with the union. Union leaders raised money for the festival, and last year Galinac coaxed a $10,000 donation from Paul Newman. But when Galinac called to discuss a contract for this year, he was routed to the society's lawyer. "I was told they can't negotiate with us this year," he says.
Society director Marcie Goodman dodges the issue: "Our focus is on providing the best film festival we can," which is French for "We sell out our friends."
Meanwhile, the county commissioners are pissed. They gave the society a $15,000 grant last year. But now that union guys won't be showing the movies, commissioners won't be sending their dough. "We told them we can't be part of the festival until you fix this," says Kathy Doyle, chief of staff for Commissioner Tim Hagan. "So fix it."
"We're not happy about it," adds Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
Forman defends his record. "We've created hundreds of jobs over the last 28 years, both union and non-union," he says. "We've restored buildings all over Northeast Ohio, using union and non-union help. We've contributed to the quality of life throughout Northeast Ohio."
Somehow, Punch can't quite understand how union-busting enhances our quality of life.
Mayor Campbell plans to install cameras on stoplights throughout the city to raise money from people caught running reds. Once they're operational this spring, a $150 fine will be mailed to you regardless of who is actually behind the wheel.
Meanwhile, down in Akron, police are planning to use radar guns to photograph license plates of speeders.
But fear not, dear reader. Autoinfozone.com offers one-stop shopping for extorted motorists. For $30, you can purchase Photo Blocker spray, which purportedly reflects the photo-radar flash back at the camera, overexposing the picture and making your plate invisible.
Punch can't actually vouch for the product. Unfortunately, $30 constitutes half of our annual net income, money better spent on lotto tickets. But if it does work, we'll be happy to accept thank-you notes stuffed with gratuities. And if it doesn't, just remember: You read it in the Free Times.
Brownstown bottoms out
Apparently bored with asking athletes what they drive -- Mr. McNabb, Escalade or Denali? -- ESPN The Magazine recently decided to rank the sporting world's best franchises.
The magazine asked 40,000 people to rank their teams based on such categories as player effort, quality of ownership, number of championships, etc. The Detroit Pistons finished first, while the Cavs and Indians found themselves in the middle of the pack -- 34th and 42nd, respectively -- out of 90 total franchises.
The Browns, however, upheld recent tradition. Which means they came in dead last.
ESPN scribes didn't return our calls. But a detailed analysis by Punch (read: a quick glance-over between bites of chicken sandwich) reveals deep flaws in the magazine's methodology. For example, ESPN ignored such important categories as fisticuffs-in-stands and per capita slurs directed at the home team, which richly enhance the stadium-going experience. There was also no mention of the team's proximity to establishments serving alcohol, nor data concerning the price or stiffness of said drinks.
Luckily, Punch took a statistics class in junior college, allowing us to recalculate the rankings to include these vital categories.
The results were just as you'd suspect. The Pistons still finished first, but the Browns took a great leap forward, moving up to 88th, ahead of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and L.A. Clippers.
Can't you smell that smell?
Commuters from southern suburbs have long noticed a foul stench near International Steel. But about two months ago, the funkometer went off the charts. Now drivers on I-77 swerve along the highway, trying to put their shirts over their noses to keep from gagging.
A recent stop at a city air-monitoring station confirmed our suspicion: Something new is in the air. A worker gathering air-quality data said a new pollutant began to register a few months back. "It's coming from Research Oil," he says. "There's another monitoring site down there. I was there yesterday, and the smell was so bad, I couldn't eat my lunch."
Research Oil no longer exists. Its facilities are now run by General Environmental Management, which refines usable oil in hazardous waste for use at the steel mills. President Eric Lofquist showed us a large container where a pine-based perfume is being broken down by organic material. The overwhelming stench instantly melted Punch into a mound of blubber and gristle. "Smells fine to me," said Lofquist, taking another drink of coffee.
Unfortunately, neighbors don't quite agree. The Cleveland Health Department has received a number of complaints. "We're in the process or investigating the source," says Director Matt Carroll. "There may be more than one smell involved."
Rich Nemeth, commissioner of the Division of Air Quality, has heard complaints as well. But ultimately, only the Ohio EPA can enforce changes at GEM, he says, which means the problem will be ignored until 2014.
In the meantime, you can call Bill Skowronski, the EPA's northeast director, at 330-963-1130.
Akron takes a Bath
A Bath developer has sued the City of Akron, accusing it of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
John Dellagnese III claims Akron misappropriated $27 million collected from the Bath-Akron-Fairlawn Joint Economic Development agreement. The 1998 deal keeps Bath and Fairlawn safe from annexation and fully stocked with Starbucks, technology companies, and white people. In exchange for water and sewage lines, Akron collects a 2 percent income tax from township residents.
But Dellagnese doesn't like what Akron's done with its money. He believes the cash should be used to sustain Bath's tax base. Instead, Akron has used it for its own economic development, which has somehow forced Bath businesses out of their leases and forced property owners to sell, says Dellagnese, who claims to be the well-to-do suburb's largest taxpayer. He also believes he's being discriminated against because pretty tax incentives in Akron aren't being offered in Bath.
Yet legal analysts believe Dellagnese has little chance of success, since People's Law precludes anyone with Roman numerals after their name from ever claiming discrimination.
Daily newspapers have long been derided for prose only slightly more engaging than the Medina phone book. But such criticisms don't apply to The Akron Beacon Journal's Phil Trexler. In his latest epic, entitled "Norton man gets 3 years in shootings of wife's cat," Trexler busts out poetry best described as a mix of Shakespeare's linguistic firepower with Regina Brett's gift for searing, emotional brevity. Behold the story's opening lines: