While examining cost allocation and rate design for natural gas distribution services provided by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., a local distribution company (LDC), the California Public Utilities...
PUC Overhaul: Sacrificing Consumer Services?
As state public utility commissions (PUCs) undergo restructuring, consumer advocate services also face possible cutbacks.
In California, the CPUC's Vision 2000 plan would affect various independent departments, such as the Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA), Office of Administrative Law, and Department of Policy. It would recast those agencies into eight divisions: customer services (consumer complaints), human resources, information services, energy, telecommunications, rail safety, carriers, and water.
But according to Diane Deinstein, CPUC spokeswoman, the changes should increase staff accountability and give commissioners greater decisionmaking clout. Less effective consumer representation is "not the intent of the commission," Deinstein maintains. Whether the 250 people in the DRA office will remain is a detail yet to be worked out. "I don't think anybody foresees any layoffs at all."
Nevertheless, concerns persist about how effective of the consumer office will be, whatever its size.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. worries that integrating the commission's advisory and advocacy roles "may create an irreconcilable conflict of interest." Toward Utility Rate Normalization (TURN), meanwhile, notes that restructuring along industry lines "returns us to a previous structure that was abandoned for a more flexible system."
TURN also claims that Vision 2000 violates PU Code section 309.5: "Collapsing the DRA into technical staff organized along industry practice areas does not fulfill the statutory requirement . . . that customers . . . are entitled to independent representation and a separate division must provide it."
Despite its seemingly more complicated organizational chart, Deinstein claims the new structure will provide the staff needed to assist consumers directly in complaint proceedings. Previously, the public advisor would tell consumers how to participate in proceedings, and then leave them on their own.
In the Midwest, the Michigan PSC has pared its staff to 160 over the last six years through unfilled vacancies, attrition, and placing employees in other state government offices. Will consumer services survive?
"I'm not sure I could say they will function in the same way due to the reorganization," says Mary Jo Kunkle, a PSC spokeswoman.
Gary Kitts, executive assistant to the PSC chairman, says there are eight positions (em two vacant (em in the consumer complaint division, but no one currently works full time. Instead, some 14 people perform consumer work part time.
Kitts doesn't believe there's any trend in the loss of consumer rights, or that Michigan will trim even more duties or personnel. "I certainly hope not," he says. "But I don't know. I'm not in a position to say."
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