Utah Ratepayers Association
Education and Lobbying for Ratepayers of Utility-type Services with Limited or No Alternatives
Utah Ratepayers Association
Deseret Morning News, Thursday, January 25, 2007
New group rallies ratepayers
By Dave Anderton
He was Utah's point man in battling utilities for eight years until Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. fired him.
Now Roger Ball is forming his own consumer watchdog group, the Utah Ratepayers Association, a nonprofit corporation that he says will stand up for consumers on utility issues.
Simply put, Ball believes companies like Questar Gas Co. and Rocky Mountain Power usually get their way when it comes to rate hikes. And legislators and state regulators, he said, are too often unwilling to champion consumer issues.
"We want to encourage ratepayers who are as disgusted as we are to come and join us," Ball said. "We want to provide some balance to the constant drumbeat of lobbying of highly paid utility lobbyists."
The new group has 15 members, making up a council that has been meeting monthly since October. A Web site, www.utahratepayers.org, outlines the group's goals and mission.
Steven Ray of Sandy said he got involved because he believes the six-member Committee of Consumer Services — charged by statute to look after the interests of residential and small-business customers — is not doing enough.
"If the CCS is not going to do their job, then we are," Ray said. "We want to restore the voice of the small consumer in ratepayer issues."
Specifically, Ray points to a committee decision in 2006 that sided with Questar on gas-processing costs. The issue involves tens of millions of dollars for processing new compositions of natural gas reaching Wasatch Front homes.
In 2003, the committee successfully persuaded the Utah Supreme Court to reverse a state Public Service Commission order that resulted in a $29 million refund in processing costs, or about $37 to each Questar customer.
However, last year the PSC approved a new deal — this time with the blessing of the consumer committee — that allowed processing costs to begin again through 2008, amounting to roughly $18 million.
"It went all the way to the Supreme Court and they won," Ray said. "Then the committee suddenly reverses itself and says, 'We were wrong all along. We want Questar to go ahead and charge for this.' It kind of makes you wonder. Is there really any voice for the little guy?"
Dee Jay Hammon, chairman of the committee, said he finds it hard to believe that anyone would think the committee is not looking out for the interests of ratepayers.
"We have no personal agenda," Hammon said. "We look at things, I think, very objectively, and I apologize to no one for what the committee has done."
Michele Beck, the committee's new director, who began her duties this month, said she welcomes the participation of all ratepayers.
"I do think the committee has taken very seriously its job to represent all the small ratepayers in the state," Beck said. "I think there is a lot that we can accomplish. I would like to see broader public participation in our meetings."
But Beck is unsure whether two groups advocating for consumer issues is a good thing.
"Time will tell," Beck said. "If they are taking an analytical view of the issues from a ratepayer perspective, then I would hope we're in line."
Chad Jones, a spokesman for Questar Gas, said the utility has 850,000 customers. Most of them are happy, he said, with the way things are going.
"If 15 of them have concerns, we want to hear from them directly," Jones said. "The fact is their rates are the lowest in the lower 48 states. They haven't had an outage in 77 years. They should be pretty happy about the way things are going here in Utah."
Ball insists that his motivation in forming the Utah Ratepayers Association is not because of a personal vendetta over his 2005 firing.
"I think Utah needs the Committee of Consumer Services," Ball said. "But it needs a committee that is an independent and vigorous advocate for ratepayers, not some pushover organization that goes along with what the utilities want."
Watchdog wants to empower Utahns
Newly formed Utah Ratepayers Association wants to 'help the voices of consumers be heard'
By Steven Oberbeck - The Salt Lake Tribune – Friday, 26 January 2007
Two of Utah's most vocal utility watchdogs have organized a new group to give the state's consumers more say on how much they are charged for their electricity and natural gas.
Former director of the state's Committee of Consumer Services Roger Ball and consumer activist Claire Geddes have formed the Utah Ratepayers Association. They say the purpose of the new group is to give the state's utility customers another voice in matters that affect their pocketbooks.
"There have been times the past several years when we felt the Committee hasn't adequately represented the interests of rate payers," Ball said. "When that happens [in the future], we want to be in the position to help the voices of consumers be heard."
Geddes and Ball are no strangers to the controversy that comes with challenging the state's largest public utilities and those that regulate them.
They have asked the Utah Supreme Court to reverse a recent Public Service Commission order that allows Questar Gas to collect roughly $19 million over a three-year period to cover its cost of removing troublesome carbon dioxide from natural gas before it is piped to Utah homes.
The Committee of Consumer Service in 2003 won a major victory when the state's highest court ordered Questar to refund $29 million in such processing costs that it previously had collected from its customers. Yet last year, the Committee abruptly switched course and supported Questar collecting those costs in the future.
Ball and Geddes saw that as a $19 million giveaway to the utility by the Committee.
It was that same action by the Committee that resulted in Ball and Geddes challenging the PSC's order and forming the Utah Ratepayers Association.
"We believe the Committee made a mistake when it supported Questar's position," Geddes said. "But we still believe that [the Committee plays] a very important role in representing consumers. We want to see them maintain their independence and would also like to see their position strengthened."
Initially, the Utah Ratepayers Association intends to watch out for what it perceives are the interests of the state utility customers at the Utah Legislature. It also intends to get involved in rate cases and possibly challenge any PSC orders in court that they believe run contrary to the interests of consumers.
Ball said no one involved with the association will be paid.
"We're starting out small," he said. "Our initial budget for this year is something like $2,000, which doesn't give us a lot of resources. But we do have 15 members on our board and they are committed to seeing that consumers get heard."
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said it isn't unusual for interest groups to want to participate in rate cases and other utility matters that come before the PSC.
"They intervene 'as their interests may appear,' to use the regulatory language," he said. "And there may be instances where we might want to comment on someone's request [to intervene], but it would be on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, the PSC has the say on who can intervene in a case."
Questar said it isn't clear what Ball and Geddes are after.
"We think we do a pretty good job ourselves representing our customers," Questar spokesman Chad Jones said. "Our customers want low-cost and reliable natural gas service and that's what we've been able to provide them."
Want to join the club?
Anyone interested in joining the Utah Ratepayers Association should contact the group at 801-998-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The association is online at www.utahratepayers.org.
Last Modified: 3 June 2007