The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 17, 2013

Lawmakers seek solutions to utility rates

Some legislators believe electing public service commissioners would help

By Kate Coil
For The Register-Herald

BLUEFIELD — While some state lawmakers feel electing public service commissioners would help combat rising utility costs, local leaders feel the state must overhaul the entire rate-changing process to effect change.

At present, all three public service commissioners are appointed to six-year terms by the governor. However, a bill introduced by Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, would amend state code to allow for public service commissioners to be elected and have set term limits.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, said he thinks electing public service commissioners is something worth looking into in light of increasing utility rates.

“I do have a similar thought with regard to the public service commission,” Gearheart said. “I think we would be better served by elected officials. The whole process of determining costs as to what should be legitimate with regard to rate increases is sometimes skewed by the fact that you have three commissioners deciding based on what accountants and lawyers have provided. Conceptually, I think this is a good idea. I don’t know if there would be support for it. For me, it will certainly be of interest. Bluefield has very high utility rates, but we are not the only ones subject to these high rates. Whether or not it will gain support depends on the meat of the bill. It will certainly pique some interest.”

Residents in Bluefield have consistently faced the highest utility rates in the state over the past several years. Bluefield Mayor Linda Whalen said she is not sure if electing public service commissioners would effectively decrease utility rates.

“I feel this idea has merit and our legislators need to give some serious thought to it,” she said. “Probably it is a good idea because people in that position impact so many people. It would require commissioners to be more responsible to the people these utilities impact. There are pros and cons to this. Our city board will definitely be looking into this bill.”

Whalen also said she feels lawmakers should review and revise the entire process by which utility rates are set.

“They need to look at the whole process,” Whalen said. “I think the process that is in place is not working very effectively. I think the costs of utilities are on the rise because of what is happening in our entire country in relation to energy and coal. There is something wrong when Bluefield’s utilities are higher than anyone else in the state. Certainly, our board would support measures allowing our utility rates to be more in line with the rest of the state.”

Blaine Braithwaite, executive director of the South Bluefield Neighborhood Association, said electing commissioners would only put the PSC into the pockets of the utility lobby.

“I personally do not believe the election of the commissioners is going to solve the issue,” Braithwaite said. “Merely electing them just politicizes the process, and part of that problem is the utilities and that lobby have deeper pockets than the consumer. They will be able to support financially and probably elect their handpicked candidates. To me, electing the commissioner may make people feel better but it won’t change the reality we are facing. The problem with utility rate regulation is the process. The system we currently have has not kept pace with the creatures these utility companies are in the 21st century.”

Braithwaite said lawmakers should consider expanding the commission to include representation from more areas of the state.

“I’m more inclined to favor a five-member commission that is appointed one from each regional area of the state,” he said. “I would like to see those candidates for appointment be vetted by the Legislature. To me, that way you at least get some geographic diversity and geographic representation. As it is right now you have a three-member commission all of which live in Charleston. Two are attorneys and one is a former staff member of now Sen. Joe Manchin. The president of the PSC spent 35 years representing utilities before joining the PSC. All of these commissioners are politically connected, making close to $90,000 a year and I’ve often made the case that they are not representative of utility consumers when you look at the demographics of West Virginia.”

— Kate Coil is a writer for The Bluefield Daily Telegraph