April 05, 2020

PUC seeks funds to help with increased workload

AUGUSTA — A proposal by the Public Utilities Commission to increase its funding by $635,000 this year received no objections when presented to a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.

Deregulation of the electric industry, the early closure of Maine Yankee nuclear plant, new natural gas ventures and new telecommunications proceedings have increased the workload for the Public Utilities Commission and have put a financial strain on the agency’s budget, PUC Chairman Thomas Welch said.

Members of the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee took no action Wednesday on the PUC’s emergency funding bill which also included a proposal to reallocate about $619,000 from existing money in the PUC budget. But the committee will consider the proposal during a work session scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26, in Room 124.

Although state lawmakers approve the PUC’s budget, it is not funded from state tax dollars. The PUC’s funding comes from assessments the agency charges all of Maine’s regulated utilities, such as water companies, electric companies and telephone companies, which in turn are paid by the various ratepayers across the state.

Ratepayers are paying a total of about 50 cents a month on average in their combined utility bills to fund the PUC’s annual budget of $4.9 million. Welch said the PUC request for an increase would have little or no effect on what ratepayers are contributing.

In addition to asking for new money, PUC officials on Wednesday also asked the committee for permission to reallocate $250,000 in salary savings to another account to pay for consultants. Also, PUC officials asked lawmakers for permission to keep $369,000 the agency had in unspent money from last year. These funds also would be spent on consultants.

“We are trying to do as much as we can in-house, but there is a lot we can’t do with the current resources,” Welch said. Rather than hiring new staff, which likely won’t be needed when the workload eases in a few years, PUC officials plan to hire specialized consultants to do that work. “That is adding up to a lot more than we had anticipated when we were planning our budgets two years ago,” Welch said.

PUC officials asked lawmakers to increase the agency’s funding by $635,000 on a one-time basis for this year. The reallocation of funds would take place over two years.

“Looking at it over a two-year period, it wouldn’t have any effect on ratepayers because any increase we had this year would be balanced by last year’s decrease,” Welch said.

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