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Watchdogs: Public Service Commission staff vital to consumers

ATLANTA - Consumer groups and utility company lobbyists on Thursday debated the future of the Georgia Public Service Commission's staff that battles rate hikes.

The role of the so-called adversary staff, which challenges a utility's proposed rate increases, took center stage at a packed public hearing in the Commission's downtown Atlanta office. The meeting stemmed from a recent proposal, initiated by Commissioner Stan Wise, to review the PSC's system for handling rate-hike cases.

Will Phillips, associate state director for the senior citizens' advocacy group AARP, discouraged even the slightest tweaking.

Phillips said most residential utility customers are always "outmatched" by an industry known for complicated concepts and dry-as-sawdust explanations.

The adversary staff, typically made up of utility engineers and analysts, protects residential customers, "who don't have the time, resources or inclination to intervene," Phillips said.

For the past 22 years, the PSC has been using a trial-like system to handle rate-hikes.

Typically, a utility asks for an increase. The adversarial staff pokes holes in the argument. An advisory staff then looks and both sides and makes a recommendation. Then, commissioners usually decide on a rate somewhere in the middle.

There was more concern Thursday that the adversary staff might be eliminated, but Wise said he never suggested that idea.

However, there are proposals to make the adversary staff independent of the Public Service Commission. Ideas discussed included moving it under the authority of the Attorney General's Office or rolling it into the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs.

Utility lobbyists argue that the reliance on an adversarial staff within the PSC is flawed.

Atlanta Gas Light attorney Craig Dowdy called for more "independence and objectivity" in rate increase cases. He questioned whether opposing views in the PSC are given the same weight as the adversary staff's.

The Commission plans to adopt recommendations by March 7 that would alter the current system. Significant changes may need approval from the state Legislature.