NEW BRITAIN \u2014 Hearings will begin at the end of the month on Eversource Energy\u2019s request for an average rate increase of 6.79 percent for the distribution portion of its customers\u2019 bills. The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority has released a schedule of 14 hearing dates, with the first scheduled for Jan. 24 at PURA\u2019s New Britain headquarters at 10 Franklin Square. The schedule includes three off-site hearings, including one scheduled for Jan. 31 in Branford at the Fire Department headquarters at 45 North Main St. A draft decision in the case is due to be released in mid-April, according to documents filed by PURA officials. Eversource announced its intention to seek a distribution rate hike at the end of October. The new distribution rates, if approved, would take effect May 21 and would cover a three-year period. The company is seeking a rate increase of $255.8 million in the first year, $45 million in the second year and $36 million in the final year. Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Eversource, said distribution upgrades and targeted tree trimming efforts have helped reduce the number of storm-related outages by 34 percent since 2012. But Eversource\u2019s handling of hundreds of thousands of power outages in Connecticut during a storm at the end of October led officials in Essex to argue that the company\u2019s rate increase is unwarrented. The proposed rate hike is also drawing opposition from state Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, who said adding the cost of doing business in Connecticut is a bad idea. Eversource provides electricity for 1.2 million customer in 149 Connecticut communities.