Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


February 22, 2013

Overhaul needed

Public Service Commission not working

— — State lawmakers in Charleston are once again mulling over the benefits of electing members of the state Public Service Commission as opposed to the current appointment process. It is a topic that certainly merits continued discussion, particularly in light of the rampant number of public utility rate increases that have been imposed upon families in southern West Virginia in recent years.

And families living in the greater Bluefield area have garnered the unfair distinction of repeatedly paying among the highest public utility rates in the state. That’s why a bill introduced earlier this week by Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, is welcomed. It would essentially amend state code to allow for the election of PSC commissioners with set term limits.

At the present time, the PSC commissioners are appointed to six-year terms. As a result, they don’t have to answer to voters, and they don’t have to explain to area families who are struggling to make ends meet why they repeatedly green light one public utility rate increase after another. Simply put, it is time for lawmakers to overhaul the entire rate-changing process. And Sumner’s legislation is a good first start.

The commission’s current mission statement indicates it is charged with ensuring that consumers receive the best value in utility service from financially viable and technically competent companies.

It also states that the commission must ensure that utilities receive an opportunity to earn a fair return on their investment in regulated services.

But no where to be found in this six-point mission statement is a pledge by the commissioners to take into consideration the ability of families to pay for increased utility rates. And let’s face it — residents in our region have been forced to shoulder the painful financial burden of one rate increase after another in recent years. Utility rates are not “reasonably priced” — as the commission’s mission statement adds — when they are raised year after year.

Bluefield Mayor Linda Whalen correctly notes that the entire process by which utility rates are set needs to be reviewed and revised.

“I think the process that is in place is not working very effectively,” Whalen said earlier this week. “I think the costs of utilities are on the rise because of what is happening in our entire country in relation to energy and coal. There is something wrong when Bluefield’s utilities are higher than anyone else in the state. Certainly, our board would support measures allowing our utility rates to be more in line with the rest of the state.”

We agree. Lawmakers across southern West Virginia must unite and demand a review and overhaul of the PSC process. And they should support Sumner’s bill.

The current system in place isn’t working. It’s broken, and it needs to be fixed. We need a process, and a commission, that will take into account the daily struggle of families who must often choose between buying food and medicine, or paying their monthly utility bills. There are two sides to every story.

The needs of public utilities must be carefully weighed against the ability of citizens to pay increased rates. At the moment, that isn’t happening.

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