Setting the Record Straight on Connecticut’s Utility Regulation

Credit: Robin Breeding

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As Chief Line Crew Leader at United Illuminating and President of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 470-1, I feel a unique responsibility to both our customers and the 500 hardworking Connecticut employees who serve them on the frontlines every day. This compels me to set the record straight about recent actions by Connecticut’s regulatory authority, PURA.

UI’s workers and our management have many concerns with PURA’s recent decision to slash UI’s requested electricity distribution rates. When a utility company cannot access the revenues it needs to provide customers with the top-tier reliability Connecticut customers expect and deserve, it is the employees who will pay the price first. Equally important goals, like those of Governor Lamont and the legislature to lay the groundwork for a clean energy future, will remain completely out of reach.

That’s why UI appealed that decision, and all of us are hopeful the Court will correct its errors. But today is not a day to rehash the company’s appeal. Instead, I am here to discuss what I believe are alarming abuses in PURA’s process. Those abuses should concern all citizens and public officials who care about well-functioning government.

The pattern goes beyond UI’s rate case. Take Aquarion Water Company, whose rate case was decided just a few short months before UI’s. The decision made the extremely rare move to cut the Aquarion’s rates, despite years of rising costs and proposed infrastructure investments to benefit customers’ water service.

Two of PURA’s commissioners couldn’t have made their objections to the decision clearer. One called the decision “arbitrary and capricious,” which is utility-speak for unconstitutional and unacceptable, as he announced his dissent. The other said, “This isn’t a decision I would have come to had I been the lead on it, but it is the decision that we have.” Two dissenting votes would have meant the large rate increase Aquarion requested would have gone into effect, so even though his comments made it crystal clear he would have dissented too, he voted for it.

Thankfully for Aquarion customers, employees, and the company, the justice system remains above the fray. Aquarion appealed the decision to the Connecticut Superior Court, and a judge prevented it from going into effect until the appeal process plays out – another extremely rare move.

UI’s rate case was up next. Once again, the draft decision came out detrimental to the company, our workforce, and our ability to serve our customers well. But in an even more concerning turn of events, elected public officials held a press conference just days before PURA would be voting on the final decision. I was there in the room, watching them throw their weight behind the flawed decision. They strongly discouraged any changes that might undo some of the proposed damage to UI’s workforce and company.

The atmosphere was tense, the timing was questionable, and the subject was ironic, as the speakers stood before TV cameras and reporters to scold UI and its workforce for publicly discussing the consequences of the draft decision.

Still, public officials had every right to hold this press conference if they decided to on their own. But it would be very inappropriate if PURA’s leadership encouraged or even requested that officials engage in heated rhetoric against UI just days before they were scheduled to vote on a decision that would have significant impacts on UI’s business. I, on behalf of the union I represent, have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to determine if records exist showing that these requests or encouragements were made.

I am proud to have worked at UI for nearly 35 years and to have spent two decades of those years as president of the union that represents all of UI’s workers. All of us know how to operate in a regulated utility, and we support and expect PURA to hold our feet to the fire. But PURA’s current environment creating has none of the transparency, mutual respect, or commitment to partnership I am accustomed to. Operating such an important agency like a private fiefdom is not how government should work, and when alarming abuses inevitably produce harmful and lawful decision, it is ultimately the public who will pay the price.

Moses Rams is the Chief Line Crew Leader at UI and the president of UWUA Local 470-1.