The Utah Public Service Commission will postpone a general hearing on utility billing practices until it receives additional information from groups concerned about the effect of billing practices on low-income consumers.
Instead, the commission will go forward with an already scheduled June 5 hearing on Utah Power & Light Co.'s billing practices. It is likely that rulings from that hearing will be applied later to Mountain Fuel Supply Co. and US WEST Communications if applicable.The proposed changes in UP&L's current policy stem from a management audit conducted earlier this year by the Utah Division of Public Utilities. Similar audits have not been performed on US WEST and Mountain Fuel.
The division contends that recommendations resulting from the audit could potentially save substantial ratepayer dollars.
In April, representatives for the Salt Lake Community Action Program filed a petition seeking a general hearing. The group says current billing practices do not provide adequate protection for low-income customers who cannot afford required security deposits and reconnection fees. The group also questioned the workability of repayment procedures that require customers with delinquent accounts to pay not only the current bill, but one-twelfth of the delinquent amount.
Following a hearing on the petition filed by attorney Bruce Plenk, the commission asked Plenk to develop an alternative proposal for the utility companies' review and comment. After the company reviews, the commission will decide whether to hold a general hearing or continue to hold separate hearings for each company.
The June 5 hearing will focus on UP&L's security deposit requirement. A second hearing, yet to be scheduled, will consider whether the policy places an unnecessary burden on certain customers.
Attorneys for the three utilities and the division expressed opposition to holding a general hearing to review all business office practices as proposed in Plenk's petition. They did indicate a willingness, however, to provide requested information for the group to use in developing its alternative proposal.
The Utah Committee of Consumer Services, a state agency that acts as an advocate for residential, small business and agricultural customers, supports the general hearing request.
Plenk said the fact that utilities have become a necessity of life makes it critical that low-income consumers' interests and circumstances be considered. He said he believes it is better for these customers to remain on the system and paying some money than forcing them into unrealistic financial situations.