If you’re writing regular checks to utility companies large or small, you have advocates out there you may not be aware of.
Grace Salazar and Mary Vittone, employees of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, hope to change that.
They’re on the Kenai Peninsula this week to listen to consumers who may have concerns or complaints about utility rates or other issues with Alaska utility companies whose tariffs are regulated by the commission.
Wednesday, Salazar, chief of the RCA’s consumer protection section, and Vittone, chief utility tariff analyst, were in Homer for the first of what they expect to become regular consumer outreach workshops held around the state.
Today they will hold a similar workshop at the Kenai Legislative Office from 2 to 4 p.m., hoping to draw public comment and answer questions about utilities serving the central Kenai Peninsula.
The RCA currently is in the process of examining several issues of importance to consumers and the utilities, including rate-hike requests from telecommunications and energy companies. Those decisions could impact consumers on the Kenai Peninsula.
For instance, MCI Communications Services Inc., doing business as Verizon Business Services, planned to raise what it charges in Alaska for the prepaid calling cards, sold at Costco, from around 3 cents per minute to 35 cents per minute beginning Nov. 1.
That increase would have affected people already holding cards they’d purchased at 3 cents per minute. Responding to complaints (33 so far) from consumers, however, the RCA issued an order in October temporarily suspending the increase, beginning a formal process of review.
MCI has said it believes the increase is within its existing tariff and requires no further action by the RCA. For a variety of reasons, the RCA disagrees, including the fact that MCI may never have updated its tariff to apply to the cards sold through Costco.
MCI now has until Wednesday to respond and justify its rate increase. Meanwhile, the RCA will hold hearings and take public comment from consumers.
Salazar said the RCA will look at the reasons behind the increase, but in the absence of justification, considers it excessive.
“It’s about eleven-hundred percent,” she said, adding the RCA also wants to determine if the increase qualifies as a violation of federal telecommunications law.
The investigation is not complete, and MCI may be able to justify its position on the matter.
A less formal investigation also is under way regarding calling cards sold by IDT Corp., which are sold at Fred Meyer, Salazar said. IDT wants to up charges on those cards from 3 cents per minute to 18 cents per minute.
Another rate hike in the works as of about a week ago concerns a request by Enstar Natural Gas for a natural gas cost adjustment. According to Salazar, this is a request to pass on cost increases to consumers.
According to the notice of “utility tariff filing,” Enstar has estimated the average residential customer would see his bill increase about $31, while a small commercial user’s bill would go up by about $69.12 per month.
The commission may well approve the rate increase but is currently taking public comment through Dec. 7.
While reviewing, and in some cases instituting, rate increases, or looking into the business practices of utilities are among the principal jobs of the RCA, it does more.
For instance, utilities like Homer Electric Association and others often submit for review what are called “Simplified Rate Filings,” which Vittone said are “avenues for the utilities to tell us where they are.” That is, provide regular updates about rates without having to go through a full-blown rate filing. In that way, the RCA can keep up on what may be driving utility rates.
An issue that could impact HEA customers is a request by Chugach Electric Association, which supplies power to HEA, for an increase to the rates it charges wholesale customers like HEA. At the same time, Chugach proposes lowering the rates it charges its retail (including residential) customers. It also wants to make changes in the structure of its tariffs to place all fuel-costs under one heading.
The increase could go into effect by Monday.
If so, HEA customers may find their bills going up to reflect the Chugach increase.
“That may well happen,” Vittone said. “Chances are (HEA managers will) have to make up those costs somehow.”
Still another issue before the commission concerns something called “Lifeline & Link Up” programs, a way to provide qualifying low-income customers with reduced monthly recurring charges and installation fees for basic wireless service and standard exchange service.
To qualify, consumers must either have an income at or below 135 percent of the current Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, or participate in one of several assistance programs, such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, Social Security and other means-tested social services administered by the state or federal governments.
As of 2006, the qualifying income in Alaska varied from a maximum of $16,538 a year for a family of one to a maximum of $56,700 for a family of eight.
For more information on the program, call the RCA at 276-6222, or the telephone or wireless service provider in your area.
The RCA has been conducting outreach programs for the benefit of utilities for some time, but RCA Chair Kate Giard determined there was a need for a consumer outreach program, as well, said Vittone.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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