For 22 years, Georgia's Public Service Commission has handled rate-increase requests through a three-way process.
A regulated utility asks for more money and submits a case arguing why the rate hike is necessary. The PSC's so-called "adversarial staff'' pokes holes in the utilities' arguments to justify either a smaller increase, no increase or even a rollback in customer bills.
Then, the agency's advisory staff examines both sides' cases and makes a recommendation that usually leads the commission to settle on a rate somewhere between the two positions.
Now, even as heating bills soar this winter, consumer advocates, state lawmakers and some members of the PSC are concerned that the three-legged stool may be about to lose one of those appendages.
The commission has been bombarded in recent weeks with phone calls, letters and e-mails from Georgians worried that an efficiency review the agency is about to undertake will lead to eliminating the adversarial staff, leaving no one to represent rate payers against well-trained, highly paid utility lawyers.
"This issue has really struck a nerve with the public,'' said Commissioner Angela Speir of Duluth, who has been on the receiving end of that barrage of mail.
"The public understands that the best way to make a decision is to get the whole story. Our adversarial staff is an important part of that.''
The General Assembly also has gotten involved. Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell, introduced a resolution in the House last week urging the PSC not to do away with its adversarial staff.
"Somebody has to be there to look after consumers,'' he said. "Somebody needs to be presenting that side and let the commissioners judge between the two sides.''
But Commissioner Doug Everett of Albany says the fears of average Georgians losing an advocate before the PSC are overblown.
"I know of no commissioner who wants to do away with an adversarial position,'' he said. "What we want to know is whether there is a better way to have that adversarial position.''
Everett called the current system, with its reliance on an adversarial staff within the PSC, "flawed" because it downplays the role of the commission's advisory staff.
He said the process allows both the utilities seeking rate increases and the adversarial staff plenty of time to develop their positions without affording the same luxury to the advisory staff.
In fact, he said, advisory staff members often don't get a chance to provide input on a case until after the commission has voted.
"They can't intervene and ask questions at the time of the hearing,'' Everett said.
"That process isn't as good as it could be. It makes the PSC look bad.''
Part of the efficiency review will involve looking at how other states provide consumers a voice in rate cases.
Everett said he likes South Carolina's system, which features an adversarial staff that is independent of its public service commission.
Another option that has been discussed is giving the adversarial role to the state's Consumers' Utility Counsel, a division of the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs.
Consumer advocates have complained, however, that the counsel would be a poor substitute for the PSC's adversarial staff because it doesn't have the staff or money to develop cases against proposed rate increases.
Everett said such a move wouldn't take place without making certain that the counsel is "properly funded.''
Those alternatives and more - including keeping the status quo - will be on the table on Thursday afternoon when the commission throws open the floor for comment from the various interested parties.
The session starts at 1:30 p.m. at the PSC's offices, 244 Washington St., in downtown Atlanta.
Speir said she's willing to look at any and all ideas, as long as the end product keeps consumers at the table in rate cases.
If there is a better way to go about it, we're open to that,'' she said.
Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.