CHARLIE MITCHELL: State's ratepayers now have a clear bill of rights

By Charlie Mitchell

Mississippi is a diverse state, but one thing most of us have in common is being “ratepayers.”
And now, thanks to a more politically active Public Service Commission, we have a bill of rights when it comes to our dealings with those to whom we pay “rates” – for telecommunications, electric, gas, water and sewer utilities.
For those who aren’t familiar with a PSC, here’s a primer:
* Starting back in the day when free enterprise was paramount and government was merely an onlooker, there was a distrust of “monopolies.”
* By definition, a monopoly, in addition to being a board game, is a single business that has the market for a commodity locked up and, as a result, has no competition.
* The danger is that when only one seller provides an item – air travel, blue jeans, green beans – the price a consumer will edge higher than natural market forces would normally require.
* Yet when it comes to utilities, having a monopoly provider is far more efficient and, in some cases, much cheaper. (Imagine a neighborhood with four or water companies running new lines every time a customer wanted to buy from a different seller.)
* To resolve this, states created PSCs. The basic premise was that private companies would be allowed to operate utility monopolies, but their rates would be under state control so as to allow only a reasonable return on investment. So, PSCs (1) guarantee ratepayers they won’t be gouged and (2) guarantee utilities exclusive service areas.
Not all utilities are under PSC oversight. Municipal water, gas, power and sewer systems are exempt, for example.
To combat political and other shenanigans 20 years ago, the Mississippi Legislature created a separate organization, the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff. It is a nonpolitical organization of about 30 state employees who are, in essence, investigators and numbers-crunchers.
One effect has been to reduce or eliminate “deals.” Another has been to nurture a more consumer-friendly posture for the commissioners elected from three multi-county districts- Brandon Presley (Northern), Lynn Posey (Central) and Leonard Bentz (Southern).
In recent years, the PSC has championed the people on several fronts.
And now, the Ratepayer’s Bill of Rights, which can be found on the PSC website at www.psc.state.ms.us.
Most of the provisions tell utilities when they can or can’t end service for nonpayment.
For example:
* No shutoffs on weekends or any other day unless the utility office is open to receive payment to restore service.
* No shutoffs for customers who certify a life-threatening condition would result.
* No shutoffs without advance written notice.
* No shutoffs because a previous customer didn’t pay a bill at the address.
* No shutoffs if the National Weather Service has declared a heat emergency or a freeze warning.
Other provisions explain the right of ratepayers to negotiate late payments and to avoid shutoffs as long as payments are being made and to be provided clear – clear – information on how their bills were calculated.
None of this is really revolutionary. The PSC has long had myriad rules about what utilities under its control could and couldn’t do to enforce collections. The problem has been that these rules have been deep inside procedures manuals. Now, the rights – 21 of them – are clearly written and out there for anyone to see.
No one should ever forget that keeping utilities profitable is a twin priority for the PSC with keeping “ratepayers” from being bilked. Still, it’s good to see a Mississippi agency – any Mississippi agency – taking affirmative steps in the consumer protection arena.
Mr. Presley. Mr. Posey. Mr. Bentz. Thanks.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi columnist. Write to him at Box 1 University, MS, or cmitchell43@yahoo.com.