April 05, 2020

Lawmakers to review Public Advocate’s Office

AUGUSTA — Public Advocate Stephen G. Ward, whose job is to be a thorn in the side of the state’s public utilities, says the agency has saved ratepayers at least $76 million since it was created 16 years ago.

This week a panel of lawmakers will begin reviewing the performance of the Office of the Public Advocate. The Utilities and Energy Committee will hold a public hearing on the agency’s program review report at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, in Room 124 of the State Office Building.

Ward will ask lawmakers to increase the agency’s funding by $400,000 for new costs associated with several regulatory issues, including electric deregulation and the early shutdown of Maine Yankee, which came up after its budget was approved last March.

State lawmakers approve the budget for the Office of the Public Advocate, but the money does not come out of state tax dollars. Funding comes from the assessments charged to regulated utilities, including water, electric and telephone companies, which in turn are paid by ratepayers.

Ward, who has been the state’s public advocate for the past 12 years, says the cost to ratepayers to fund the agency’s $649,336 budget is about 5.8 cents a month out of a $100 utility bill. He says the increased funding won’t affect ratepayers unless utilities file for rate increases, and if they do, the increase would be minimal, at most a few pennies a month.

The public advocate says his office makes sure customers are represented in all utility rate cases, which include telephone, electricity, gas, water and nuclear power, that go before the Public Utilities Commission.

In the Legislature, the public advocate takes a position on all utility-related matters, and sometimes drafts and pushes bills.

Also, Ward says the agency works with individual consumers and consumer groups so they can take advantage of their rights at the Public Utilities Commission. For example, Ward said his office worked with a large group of people in the Blue Hill area, where voltage fluctuations caused appliances to burn out. Allegations about poor service led to investigations and an out-of-court settlement with Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. agreeing to upgrade its service and pay damages.

Ward says a key emerging issue for the Office of the Public Advocate in the near future will be to educate consumers about their rights and opportunities in a world of partially deregulated utility services.

“There is a big need for giving customers information they need to figure out how to deal with deregulated telephone services and deregulated electric services and natural gas,” Ward says.

He says the Office of the Public Advocate has had some success in utility rate cases, but admits the agency’s recommendations are not regularly adopted by the PUC. “Maybe there is some justice to that because the PUC does not adopt the recommendations of utilities, either,” he says.

Ward says he can’t tout a long string of victories when it comes to utility rate increases. “After all, the utilities have succeeded in getting increases, repeatedly. We have been a brake on that process,” Ward says. He says the agency has saved ratepayers at least $76 million since 1982, when it was created.

As for whether Maine needs a public advocate, Ward says, “it would be a one-sided fight at the Public Utilities Commission. The public advocate in a very large number of cases is the only public party active in PUC proceedings.”

Ward says utilities bring in teams of people to argue cases for them. The PUC sits like judges.

“The basic point is if the public has no representative or no one going to bat for them, then it is certainly a slam-dunk situation for utilities,” he says.

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