January 30, 2009
Neal Wagner -
The Public Service Commission may not be able to always guarantee low rates, but it can ensure consumers get a "fair deal" when dealing with large, regional utility companies, according to Commissioner Brandon Presley.
To keep consumers from getting "taken advantage of" by some of Mississippi''s largest utility companies, the PSC soon may enact a 22-item ratepayers'' bill of rights, Presley explained to a group of about 50 locals gathered Thursday night in the city''s municipal complex.
"Look, the Public Service Commission is not out to get consumers free energy all the time. We understand utility companies have to make a reasonable return on their profits," said Presley. "But I do think that if we have to tighten our belts, they should have to as well."
Safeguards for consumers
If passed by two of the state''s three public service commissioners, the bill of rights would enable several safeguards for consumers, Presley explained.
"I''ve seen it firsthand; consumers are in a take-it-or-leave-it type deal with most of their utility companies," Presley explained. "A lot of people feel like there is no competition in most of the state.
"You can decide to go out and eat on a Friday night, but you can''t decide that you don''t want gas, water or electricity for a month. You just have to have it," Presley added. "We just want to get something passed that will guarantee you certain rights as a consumer."
Through the act, utility companies would not be allowed to disconnect customers during the weekend, on a legal holiday or the day before a legal holiday. Companies also would not be allowed to disconnect a customer on a day when temperatures were forecasted below 32 degrees or above 98 degrees.
"Be sure you understand, you would not be getting free utilities on those days. You would still have to pay for the energy you used on the days they were not allowed to disconnect you," Presley said. "These are just to ensure the safety of the people in this state."
The act also would require utility companies to provide an option for customers to talk with a live person when they called the utility company.
"I just think it''s right that a company that posts huge profits could at least care about its customers," Presley said, drawing applause from the crowd. "The good thing is that it only requires myself and one other public service commissioner to ratify this list. I expect a slightly amended list will get passed pretty soon here.
"Now don''t get me wrong; there are tons of companies like the Columbus Light and Water Department and 4-County that we don''t get any complaints on," Presley added. "There are just some companies throughout the state that we get a lot of negative feedback on."
Not naming names
While Presley did not reveal his list of "unsatisfactory" companies, a few members of the audience expressed concerns about the recent Tennessee Valley Authority fuel cost adjustment.
The adjustment came about the same time last year as a 20 percent TVA rate increase, which soon was followed by a 6 percent rate decrease in October. Local customers in September also were hit with a 4-percent sewer and water rate increase passed by the CL&W board.
While the PSC does not have authority over TVA, a federal agency, or CL&W, which is under city authority, Presley sought to explain the TVA rate increase to the crowd.
"The fuel cost adjustment is a very complex issue," said Presley. "Most of the power in North Mississippi comes from coal plants. The price of coal just jumped tremendously because China is building, on average, one new coal energy plant each day.
"The water levels in the Tennessee River have also been down because of the drought," Presley added. "When the levels are down, they can''t run water through their dams, because it causes an environmental hazard. That forces them to purchase more coal."
Though TVA may have been forced to pass on the fuel cost adjustment during the "perfect storm" of low water levels and high coal demand, the company could have done one thing differently, according to Presley.
"They just kind of added insult to injury when, at about the same time they raised rates, they decided their CEO was worth a lot more than they thought he was and gave him up to a $500,000 raise," Presley said.
While the meeting brought few, if any, complaints regarding local utility company policies, a few members of the public questioned what they could do to lower their power bills.
"There is a lot we can do ourselves to bring our bills down," Presley said. "If you have a cell phone charger plugged in a home when you aren''t charging your phone, unplug it. It''s using energy.
"Compact fluorescent bulbs also use a lot less energy than regular bulbs do," Presley added. "When everyone uses less power, the demand for it goes down. That ends up making it cheaper for everyone in the area."