Consumers lack voice at PSC as big utility cases loom, advocates say

The state Public Service Commission is scheduled to hold public hearings Monday and Tuesday in Georgia Power’s fuel cost recovery case.

If the utility gets what it’s asking — $3.9 billion to cover its cost of coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel for the next 14 months, plus $683 million in under-recovered past costs — the typical residential customer will pay nearly $7 more each month on his electric bill.

Matthew Hardy plans to be at the hearings to offer his thoughts on the company’s request. His views will no doubt favor ratepayers, and that is nothing unusual. The Atlanta attorney once served on the state’s Consumers’ Utility Counsel, which was charged with advocating on behalf of residential ratepayers in utility cases.

What will be different is that Hardy will be speaking as a private citizen only. The counsel disappeared in 2008 when the agency, created by the state legislature in 1975, was de-funded as part of state budget cuts ordered by Gov. Sonny Perdue. The move saved about $400,000.

Since then, some say, ratepayers have lacked adequate representation in utility cases involving billions of dollars.

“That voice is just gone,” Hardy said.

The effect, counsel supporters said, is higher bills for ratepayers.

The issue was brought to the forefront recently by Georgia Watch, which bills itself as the state’s leading consumer advocacy organization.

In a letter, the group asked Joseph Doyle, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs, to publicly represent consumer interests before the PSC. The counsel remains a division of that office. Although the counsel is not funded, the state law that created it has not been repealed.

Georgia Watch noted that a number of high-profile, big-dollar cases are coming before commissioners this year. Besides Georgia Power’s pending fuel cost recovery case, both Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light will file rate cases that could result in rate hikes.

“With so much ratepayer money on the line, it is critical that the interests of consumers are represented before the commission,” wrote Georgia Watch executive director Angela Speir Phelps, a former commissioner.

Speir Phelps likened PSC cases to trials in which commissioners act as judges and utilities argue their positions. The counsel’s role was to advocate specifically for the consumer in front of the commission.

She said that although Doyle would not have the staff to present a major case in front of the PSC, his mere presence, on behalf of a consumer position, would have an impact.

“Without such representation, the power of utilities is more likely to go unchecked, and the average consumer is even more likely to see an increase in their monthly bills,” Speir Phelps said.

Doyle said in an e-mail, however, that he would not intervene in utility rate cases.

His office “enforces the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act,” Doyle wrote. “That Act deals with unfair and deceptive practices in trade or commerce — not with setting utility rates.”

He added that, “Georgia voters have elected the five commissioners and charge them with responsibility for fairly representing all Georgians in these matters.”

But many say that’s not enough. The mission of commissioners is to balance the interests of utilities and ratepayers. The Georgia legislature created the counsel to specifically represent consumer interests.

Commissioners, even those who sparred with counsel staff, said the group had a place.

When the counsel was de-funded, Commissioner Doug Everett said, “They were the main voice of the consumer and small business. Now they won’t have anyone representing them directly anymore.”

Commissioner Stan Wise observed that, “At different times, the (counsel) was very effective in the process.”

Commissioner Robert Baker said, “There’s a giant void there. There’s no third-party representation for small consumers.”

Baker cited an effort by AARP Georgia on behalf of its members in a recent case before the commission involving Atlanta Gas Light. The organization intervened in the utility’s successful $400 million facilities expansion request, but it was denied discovery rights by the commission, preventing it from obtaining answers to questions it had about the project.

AARP Georgia associate state director Will Phillips said the case would have “implications for people’s bills,” and said that it would not get “the high level of scrutiny that it deserves.”

If the counsel were still in operation, consumer advocates say, those questions may have been answered, even if the outcome might not have changed.