PUEBLO, Colo. -

Black Hills Energy customers made it clear: they cannot afford another rate hike.

"We pay the highest bills in the state of Colorado. We're little old Pueblo. We're struggling," said Deborah Mestas.

She was one of more than two dozen people who addressed Administrative Law Judge Robert Garvey at the Pueblo County Courthouse. Garvey will make a recommendation to the state's Public Utilities Commissioners later this year whether they should grant Black Hills a rate increase.

The company wants to raise electric rates by four percent starting next year. The rate hike would be equivalent to about $4 more a month for residential customers.

George O'Brien said, "They want more money, your honor, I think Pueblo needs a refund," which drew an applause from the crowd.

So many people packed into the Pueblo County Commissioners' Chambers that Pueblo firefighters had to ask about a dozen people to wait out in the hallway.

Some ratepayers argued their bills have more than doubled since Black Hills became their provider.

"How much more can you take when there's no more to take?" asked Mestas.

"Clearly, there's a lot of concern and that's the reason why we're here," said Christopher Burke, vice president of Colorado Utility Operations for Black Hills Energy. "We're here to listen. We're here to better understand our customers' concerns. And we're also here to encourage customers to contact us."

Black Hills said it needs to raise rates to pay for the cost of a wind farm built in Huerfano County.

"This is a rate request that is driven by a legislative action in 2010: the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act," Burke said.

"But the part of that that's unfair is there's no one else for us to go to. You have it monopolized," said Sharon Garcia.

Another hearing will be held next Thursday at the Pueblo Convention Center that will run from 4 to 7 p.m.

Since Black Hills began serving southern Colorado in 2008, the company has raised utility rates by more than 17 percent.