Ted Stewart can't leave his work at the office.
Simple things like a light flickering to life, the quiet hum of the gas furnace clicking into service on a chilly winter morning, or the ring of the telephone are all reminders of the work that awaits the Farmington resident at his office 20 miles away in Salt Lake City.As chairman of the Utah Public Service Commission, Stewart is one of three men charged with the task of determining how much the electricity that illuminates the light, the gas that heats the home, and the privilege of talking to a neighbor by telephone is going to cost Utahns. It is a task that Stewart takes seriously.
He realizes the challenges and responsibilities that go with the territory and sees his role as a mediator, trying to balance the desires of the "public interest" with the "economic needs" of the regulated utility companies. It's a delicate task, ensuring that Utahns can enjoy the benefits of modern technology at a reasonable cost, while making it economically feasible for utility companies to provide those benefits and still receive a fair return on their investment.
Stewart and his fellow commissioners, James M. Byrne and Brent H. Cameron, spend hours studying written testimony and exhibits, hearing oral arguments, and simply weighing the evidence. They know the decisions they make affect all Utahns, including themselves. After all, they too pay their own telephone, gas and power bills. There are no freebies.
"Our decisions must be based on firm information, and we must be accountable for those decisions," Stewart said. "We have to be credi e to both the public and the (utility) companies."
"I don't see the companies trying to play games with us," Stewart said. "I think they realize they must respect our judgment, and I think we have earned their respect."
Also, companies must maintain their image before the commission, Stewart said. "We know if they are trying to play games with us and that can hurt their credibility with us (the PSC)," Stewart said.
Because PSC decisions have such far-ranging impact, commissioners can't take their role as judge and jury lightly. Hours are spent studying written documents and testimony, hearing oral arguments and analyzing information that is needed in making decisions. Often, there are time pressures involved that make the task even more difficult, Stewart said.
While he is pleased with the efforts the PSC has made on behalf of the public, Stewart said he would like to see the structure of the organizations overseeing utility regulation in Utah returned to the pre-1985 format.
In 1985, the Legislature reformed the structure by moving the Division of Public Utilities from under jurisdiction of the PSC. Left with a small administrative staff but no research or investigative capacity, the PSC has felt isolated, Stewart said. That responsibility shifted to the division which is assigned the task of reviewing applications submitted to the PSC and providing a recommendation.
That recommendation is supposed to reflect the pros and cons for both the company and the general public. For balance, the Utah Committee for Consumer Services is charged with reviewing the applications from the point of view of residential customers, small businesses and agricultural interests. Both groups provide written responses as well as oral testimony, when appropriate. They also are involved with questioning those testifying on behalf of the applicants.
"I would like to see the division's staff divided between the commission and the committee," Stewart said. "I think it would provide a more efficient approach and would also allow the PSC direct involvement from the start."
As the process now works, often the PSC receives background information shortly before hearings begin and does not have an opportunity to make suggestions concerning information that might be beneficial in making a decision, Stewart said. In some cases, the present process makes it difficult to ascertain some pertinent information until the hearing is actually in progress, a situation Stewart said makes timely decision making more difficult.
Whether the legislation desired is forthcoming or not, 1989 will have its challenges, Stewart said. One challenge will be monitoring the implementation of conditions outlined in a merger agreement between Utah Power & Light and Pacific Power & Light, both now subsidiaries of PacifiCorp. In approving the merger, the PSC made some specific stipulations and Stewart said the PSC will monitor the situation closely to ensure those conditions are met.
On the horizon is a telephone rate case that should get under way later this spring and a review of revenue needs for UP&L, a process that should begin later this fall.
"Other than that, I think things will remain relatively stable as they have been the past few years," Stewart said. "Things should be fairly predictable for the next two to three years."
A sudden change in Utah's economic picture could change that perception, Stewart said. But he remains confident that that is not likely, at least in the foreseeable future.