Senators Question Utility Refund Deal

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(Host) State senators are becoming increasingly skeptical of a utility merger agreement that they say fails to adequately reimburse ratepayers.

On Thursday, senators turned their fire on the Shumlin administration’s top utility regulator.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Senate met in a rare joint caucus to grill Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller. She’s the Shumlin administration’s point person on utility issues, and she was there to explain the details of a planned merger between Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corporation.

The administration supports the merger, and Miller says the benefits she helped negotiate include increased public control over the state’s transmission network and $144 million in savings to customers over 10 years.

(Miller) "Vermonters need to understand the value of this merger as a whole, the significant savings that it will bring not just in the early years, but in the years to come."

(Dillon) But most senators were focused on one issue: the $21 million that CVPS customers are owed because they paid higher rates to save the company from bankruptcy a decade ago.

The Public Service Board has said ratepayers should share in the profit if the company is sold. Many lawmakers say the money should be returned in a refund.

But the utilities and Governor Peter Shumlin want to put the funds into weatherization and efficiency programs that they say will save customers at least $21 million. They say they’re following the same outline approved by regulators when Green Mountain Power was sold to GazMetro of Montreal five years ago.

But senators are upset that the merged utility would be able to recover that money in the future through its rates. Orange Democrat Mark MacDonald says that means consumers would end up paying twice.

(MacDonald) "Why it appears that that money is going to the ratepayers through efficiency or some other procedure at the same time that the ratepayers have to pay Green Mountain Power for the money they’re getting back."

(Dillon) Franklin Republican Randy Brock – who’s running for governor – read a letter from an elderly constituent who said she’ll never live long enough to reap the benefits of an efficiency program. Instead, she said, she wants the money back that was used to bail out CVPS.

(Brock) "And my question really is: do you see the fundamental fairness to those ratepayers who paid this for years of using their own money to bill them again in for higher electric rates for a benefit that they will never see?"

(Miller) "I do think the MOU is fundamentally fair and more than that, promotes the general good of the state of Vermont, now and for decades into the future."

(Dillon) Brock asked Miller if the deal could be renegotiated to return the money directly to ratepayers. Miller replied that could be done if all parties agreed, but …

(Miller) "GMP has indicated and I understand this to be their position, that this is a merger deal as a whole. We certainly viewed it that way. I would tell you I would not have been willing to settle little pieces of this."

(Dillon) Senate President John Campbell has been critical of the utilities. And after the meeting, Campbell said he didn’t think Miller had changed many minds.

(Campbell) "I don’t think it assuaged our concerns. I’m looking around the room and just I know that there’s a lot of people who were not satisfied with the answers."

(Dillon) Campbell said the Senate may take up a bill that would require the Public Service Board to order CVPS to return the $21 million to customers.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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