NY PSC Seeks A “Consumer Advocate” Made to Order

The New York Public Service Commission is seeking to fill a new position for an internal “consumer advocate.”  According to a Job Announcement,

The New York State Department of Public Service is developing a new consumer advocacy organization, and is seeking a Director to lead this effort. This consumer advocate will serve in a senior leadership position, reporting directly to the Chair of the Public Service Commission. Candidates should have experience and passion for addressing consumer concerns and the ability to manage a diverse group of professional and administrative staff. This person must be a strategic and innovative thinker with a proven ability to develop complex policies, and the capability of navigating potentially controversial situations. The candidate must be an effective speaker, presenter, and writer; a strong advocate who is able to balance competing concerns; and a person who exhibits sound executive judgment.

The functions to be performed include the following:
(1) Zealously advocating for consumer policy matters, including low-income and special needs programs, service quality, advanced technologies including renewable and energy efficiency, and other timely policy-related development.
(2) Representing consumer interests in regulatory proceedings and policy matters before the Commission.
(3) Coordinating and interacting with external entities, including those representing residential and commercial interests.
(4) Actively resolving consumer complaints, including managing a call center that assists consumers by ensuring that utilities comply with applicable consumer protection rules and regulations. Complaints may involve informal hearings and appeals to the Commission if the residential or business consumers are not satisfied with the initial complaint determination.

While any new emphasis on consumer and low income concerns by the PSC would be welcome, it is apparent that even a new official “zealously advocating” for consumers and “representing consumer interests” nonetheless will ultimately be under the control of the PSC and will not be truly independent.  Over the past nearly two decades, the Commission has had high level staff charged with responsibility for consumer affairs, who were accountable to the PSC Chair, and yet we  witnessed efforts, in cooperation with utilities, to circumvent the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA) (by a benighted effort to migrate all customers to ESCOs who, until the legislature acted in 2002, were allowed to avoid all HEFPA compliance), to erode HEFPA (through subtle policies like Niagara Mohawk d/b/a/ National Grid’s array of measures to nibble away at HEFPA rights, charging deposits, charging $1,000 down payments for certain customers with prior arrears from closed accounts (the “Grand Plan”)), thwarted transparency of ESCO pricing, thwarted transparency of utility pricing, destabilized residential rates with  unanticipatable monthly changes that wreak havoc in households struggling  to live on fixed and low incomes, limited the discounts, eligibility, and enrollment for low income rates (see CON EDISON LOW INCOME REDUCED RATE PROGRAM: ELIGIBLE, BUT NOT ENROLLED?),  raised interest rates on late charges, rejected performance measures for minimizing shutoffs for collection purposes and HEFPA enforcement, approved hundreds of millions of dollars for hardening against once in a century natural events in the name of keeping service on while presiding over nearly 300,000 intentional annual shutoffs of low income customers who cannot afford current energy bills, and allows VOIP phone service providers, including Comcast, to escape compliance with billing and collection rules and the Telephone Fair Practices Act.

We could go on.

The Moreland Commission on utilities last year urged the state to create a well-resourced independent consumer advocate entity capable of challenging decisions of utilities and their regulators.  See MORELAND COMMISSION RECOMMENDS STRONGER UTILITY CONSUMER ADVOCACY.

Utility consumer advocacy in New York can be enhanced through statutory changes:

First,  New York could adopt a statutory utility intervenor compensation program, similar to the California Intervenor Compensation Program  that would put consumers on close to the same footing as utilities, who are able to recover their costs for experts and lawyers through rates approved by the PSC.  An intervenor compensation bill passed the State Senate in 2010, but the legislature adjourned before the Assembly acted.  Had that bill been enacted, an emergency funding provision in it would have saved the Utility Project from having to shut down in 2010 and struggle to survive now.  That bill, however,was not as robust as California’s intervenor compensation program.  For example, it omitted compensation in telecommunications cases.

However well intentioned the new PSC initiative to hear consumer concerns from a new person within its over 500 person staff, this cannot be a substitute for the well-resourced, truly independent advocacy needed and recommended by the Moreland Commission, which should be addressed by statute.  Without it, the PSC tends to hear mainly from the experts and lawyers and lobbyists  hired by utilities and industry interests who have the wherewithal and staff to deploy in the complex, time consuming, and costly PSC collaborative stakeholder processes.  For example, consumer groups have made the point recently that the residential consumers affected by the proposed “Revised Energy Vision” (REV) proceeding and the pending review of the proposed Comcast/Time Warner takeover lack the resources to participate fully in meetings, employ experts and lawyers, study issues and develop protective proposals.

Second, the state agency consumer advocate, nee the utility intervention arm of the defunct Consumer Protection Board, currently under the New York Department of State as the UIU, should be reformed, with more resources, broader jurisdiction and powers, and a greater degree of independence not now provided in the current structure, so that, for example, it does not have to stand down when the PSC or other arms of the state agree to settle a matter.  A bill to reform that function passed the State Assembly in 2014, but not the State Senate.  See NY BUDGET ADOPTED WITHOUT REFORM OF STATE UTILITY CONSUMER ADVOCATE FUNCTION; and  UTILITIES ATTACK CREATION OF INDEPENDENT STATE UTILITY CONSUMER ADVOCATE OFFICE.

 

Gerald Norlander

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