The PUC and consumers Consumer Concerns
By Eileen Cox
Stabroek News
March 21, 2004

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On June 18, 2001, the Guyana Consumers Association (GCA) and Consumers Advisory Bureau (CAB) wrote to the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) advising him that they were not being informed of PUC hearings and for some time had not been receiving transcripts of hearings.

They pointed out that from the time the commission was established the GCA was invited to all hearings, and that when the CAB was registered it, too, was invited to hearings. They stated that both organisations had contributed to the work of the PUC.

Submissions from the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T) were also sent to the two organisations.

On Thursday, March 4, the PUC held a hearing to consider the application by GT&T to charge $34.01 per minute for the use of telephone booths which were being constructed in the Rupununi. A telephone card would also be needed to make a call. The toll, therefore, would be very high.

An item in the Stabroek News drew my attention to the hearing. I attended, and as it was about to begin I drew the attention of the Chairman to the fact that the two consumer bodies had not been invited. I was told that the hearing was advertised in the press, the Public Utilities Commission Act did not require any other notification and if our associations had been on the ball we would have seen the advertisement.

Now, the members of the two associations work voluntarily. The advertisements published by the PUC, unlike advertisements under the Environmental Protection Act, are not placed in a prominent position in the newspaper, and those that I have seen were published only on one occasion in the Guyana Chronicle.

As I protested the non- receipt of notices, the Chairman lost his temper and claimed that I wanted money. He declared that I would not receive money from the PUC. As I attempted to set the record straight he cut me short in order to continue with the business.

This was not the first time that the Chairman has shown disrespect to me at a public hearing.

Having been denied the opportunity to respond, I will now explain the Chairman's reference to money. I believe that he was referring to an application by the two groups for funding in order to engage counsel.

On September 18, 2000, the GCA and CAB wrote to the Chairman of the PUC requesting funding so that the consumer movement could engage legal and technical advice at the PUC hearings to balance the massive weight of the legal and technical advisers and consultants fielded by the utilities, and also to make the regulatory process more meaningful and worthwhile.

The PUC responded favourably and requested some indication of the cost of our legal aid. This was submitted on February 8, 2001. We have heard nothing since.

Other correspondence with the PUC has met the same fate. On November 12, 2002, we wrote to the Chairman requesting that he ascertain from GT&T the manner in which it calculated its surcharge of $1.4 billion, whether the surcharge was less or more than what it claimed would have been collected and whether the surcharge is properly reflected in the company's accounts. We received no reply.

Our request for funding is based on good grounds. On June 27, 1998, Mr Joseph Tyndall wrote:

"In the rate of return system, the expenses incurred by the public utility in connection with regulation, including the costs of litigating regulatory decisions, are included in its operating cost and thereby shifted to its customers. The utility's customers are compelled to underwrite the regulatory expenses of the utility in the rates they pay, even though the representational activities may be in direct opposition to consumer interests. At the same time organisations representing consumer interests are starved of funds to mount an effective response."

The answer, says Mr Tyndall, is given by the Alabama Public Service Commission which confronted the dilemma in 1954 in a hearing in connection with a rate application by Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company:

"It is clear from the record in the case that the company will have spent over $200,000 in preparing and presenting its alleged need for an increase. It has obtained outstanding legal talent. All such expenses, of course, are carried as operating expenses and finally borne by the ratepayer as subscriber.

While we certainly would not ask that the company use less qualified men in presenting their case, we do feel that some statutory provision should be made for an organised effective presentation of the subscriber's side of such a case. At present, the subscriber, through his telephone rates, pays for the presentation of all evidence by experts and others tending to justify a telephone rate increase. But he must rely on the very limited budget of the commission and the unorganised resources of intervenors in presenting evidence tending to show that a rate increase is not necessary. In plain words, this is not right. The subscriber's side of such matter should be thoroughly investigated and adequately presented and it should be financed from the rates established or approved by this commission just as the company's presentation is financed." (Emphasis added)

The Alabama commission expressed the belief that legislation along this line is badly needed.

In Guyana, also, legislation is badly needed and we should stop pussy-footing.

Now that the PUC, according to a handout on World Consumer Rights Day, has joined the ranks of consumer advocates by selecting complaints against the utilities, we may see more action in other directions.