Byline: VICKY ECKENRODE
ATLANTA -- Although the Georgia Public Service Commission is charged with representing the interests of millions of Georgians by challenging utilities to justify requests for rate increases, the agency says it now has less money than ever to do the job.
This week, the commission will be deciding whether both Savannah Electric and Georgia Power will be able to increase customers' bills.
Their decision comes after months of work examining the companies' financial information and hearing arguments from the utilities and paid experts in regulatory fields.
Though the final word comes from the five commissioners who sit on the board, their decisions are influenced by research from staff workers and paid consultants, which have been seeing significant budget cuts from the state in recent years.
Meanwhile, the large utility companies have vast resources to pay for lawyers and consultants to support their proposals.
"If you don't have the money to hire those top-notch consultants, we are at a disadvantage to the utilities," said PSC spokesman Bill Edge, who spent time during the past legislative session lobbying the General Assembly for more agency funds.
The funding the PSC uses to hire expert consultants during rate cases dropped to $368,000 in the 2006 fiscal year state budget Gov. Sonny Perdue signed last week. That marks a nearly 65 percent cut from the $1,048,000 the PSC had in 2002 to hire outside witnesses.
The agency's overall budget of about $8 million has been dropping slightly in recent years, though it was able to secure $175,000 from the upcoming budget to move the offices of some workers who were originally scheduled to relocate several years ago.
"There was no additional money put in for additional per diem and fees [to pay consultants]," Edge said.
This fiscal year, as the PSC's staff argued against two separate increases for both Georgia Power and Savannah Electric as well as a filing from Atlanta Gas Light for natural gas customers, the agency had to move $186,000 from its consultant fund to cover a sudden shortfall in payroll.
All state agencies faced a similar dilemma when Perdue announced he was not going to shift the final paycheck of the year into the next budget, and departments had to pay for them from their existing budgets.
Despite the drop in funding, the PSC is still charged with representing consumer interests of safe, reliable and "reasonably priced" utility services. …