A Self-Defense Plan for Utility Customers
Residential utility consumers are fighting mad about the drastic increase in electric, gas and telephone bills.
Electricity rates, for example, rose 55.4 percent on the average during the first half of this year for the country’s 50 largest utilities. But consumers have no strategy, other than sporadic protests and underfunded lawsuits, to try and redress their very real grievances.
HERE IS a proposal which would forge a strong and lasting consumer effort for meaningful utility reform.
What residential utility customers need most is organization and a full-time staff of advocates and analysts. Such a state-wide consumers’ organization could be established by state law or public utility commission regulation and funded through a check-off.
The check-off would work this way. Included with e very monthly utility bill sent to the residential customer would be a check-off card. If the consumer desired, he or she could check-off the amount to be contributed to their action group and add it to their utility bill.
The utility would then be obliged, under strict state audit, to pass such contributions monthly over to the Residential Utility Consumer Action Group (RUCAG).
RUCAG’s constitution and by-laws could be developed by statute, regulation or a consumers’ convention similar to a constitutional convention. The structure of the group should ensure its control by utility consumers and not by the utilities or their indentured government agencies. Consumers could convene RUCAG meetings, elect officers and establish basic policy.
RUCAG would then go to work with its staff of consumer lawyers, accountants, economists, engineers, organizers, writers and other skilled persons to represent the daily and long-term interests of residential utility consumers.
Think what this could mean to citizens concerned about the deterioration of telephone service and the endless surcharges demanded or proposed such as the forthcoming customer charge for information calls.
Imagine the impact of a RUCAG in your state challenging the utilities on rate increases which reflect padding, inefficiencies and profligate promotional spending. Consider the effectiveness of a full-time staff representing a community against nuclear power hazards and costs.
Contemplate the role of a consumer advocacy organization, backed by hundreds of thousands of citizen consumers within a state, in developing the necessary structural changes for governmental policies and utility industry practices so as to produce an efficient and healthful energy policy.
NOW, consumers find that their individual complaints against their electric, gas or telephone company frequently go unheeded. RUCAG would also be the consumers’ ombudsman here.
The overreaching demands utilities are making or are about to make to cover up their mass mismanagement, waste mentality, lack of research, and discriminatory practices against residential consumers over the years require this kind of systematic consumer effort.
For example, utitities want automatic passthroughs for their operating costs along with their present fuel adjustment provision. They want to include in the rate base all plants under construction. They want more federal tax relief, even though one fourth of the major electric utilities paid no federal income tax last year while others also profitable, paid only a fractional federal tax.
These moves would make a mockery of state regulation and of responsibility to the U. S. Treasury.
BOTH Treasury Secretary William Simon and Federal Energy Administrator John Sawhill are pushing state regulatory commissions to throw. overboard their regulatory responsibilities and give these monopolies what they are demanding quickly. These men also want more permissive federal tax loopholes for the utilities which amount to indirect subsidies.
Utilities have enormous legal privileges under state laws. They have a monopoly of service and are guaranteed a sizeable return on their investment. In return, state laws, passed decades ago, require that these utilities meet the tests of public interest and that state utility commissioners protect the interests of consumers. The proposed residential utility consumers’ check-off system is squarely within the purpose at these laws.
It is long overdue to impose an obligation en these utilities to help their rate payers who are the source of their profits. This is all the more imperative inasmuch as the expenses for a rate proceeding are an allowable expense to be charged against the rate payer.
Consumers or consumer groups interested in more details about this check-off proposal should write to Martin Rogol at P.O. Box 19312, Washington, D.C. 20036.