This is an op-ed I wrote for CTNewsjunkie.com about my longstanding issues with my utility companies here in Connecticut. The following idea came as a direct result of my most recent experience after a telephone pole caught fire at the end of my road. I’m hoping our legislature makes this change in their coming session:
I’ve long been a critic of my local utility monopolies because they’ve put their profits ahead of serving customers and taxpayers. Over the last couple of decades as regulations eased, utilities reduced staff and deferred maintenance resulting in several week-long outages and reliability issues across Connecticut.
Meanwhile, electricity monopoly Eversource enjoys billion-dollar net profit margins, money that comes from consumers who have little choice but to pay whatever rates they decide to charge irrespective of the quality of service being offered. Their corporate culture was on full display at a 2020 hearing when former Eversource CEO Jim Judge ranked shareholders as his top priority above customers and ratepayers.
Progress is being made, however. Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), which allowed these reductions in service quality for many years, is finally starting to turn the page and hold utilities accountable. Additionally the recently enacted “Take Back our Grid Act” is another set of accountability measures that can begin to roll back decades of customer neglect.
But PURA’s staffing levels haven’t increased despite these new tools, making it difficult for the authority to document examples of local deficiencies that could lead to enforcement action. But there is an existing mechanism that can help provide PURA those “eyes and ears” on the ground: local Cable Television Advisory Councils.
Decades ago when legislators grew tired of dealing with constituent complaints about cable television service, they created this local council structure that meets regularly with cable television company officials to work out problems before issues rise to regulatory action. Members are appointed by local municipalities and boards of education.
The councils still exist today but their regulatory authority is limited only to cable television and not any of the other utilities that benefit and profit from poles and wiring conduits running on public and private right-of-ways.
It’s time to modernize this advisory council structure and extend its advisory authority to any utility that makes use of poles and conduits in a community. Irrespective of whether the service is regulated, the use of public rights of way to deliver services is a regulated activity.
Extending this oversight authority will cost the state nothing beyond what it’s already doing to support these councils and will help PURA exercise the new regulatory powers granted to them in recent legislation. But, more importantly, this will provide an opportunity for utilities to build productive relationships with local customers and hopefully prevent regulatory action from taking place at all.
While utilities could choose not to attend these local council meetings it would most certainly be in their interest to be there and listen to customers and officials about local concerns. And if a resolution is not possible locally, the council could, through PURA, initiate regulatory dockets for enforcement such as they have with the cable companies for decades.
I have no doubt the utilities will oppose any additional oversight of their businesses. But they no longer have the trust of the public and it’s time to create a process to re-establish relationships and refocus their efforts on those who matter: us.