One thing consumers should imagine when thinking about what exactly Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulation Authority (PURA) does, is to think along the lines of Law and Order or Perry Mason, according to PURA Chairman Marissa Gillett.
PURA is a quasi-public agency that regulates the rates of the state’s public utilities including electricity, gas and pipeline safety, water, cable and telecommunications.
Gillett, who has been chairman for a little more than three years, started holding “PURA 101” workshops right before COVID hit. While some are held on Zoom, more and more are now in person. Usually partnering with a state legislator, Gillett will visit a community to address any questions.
“PURA, in my mind, is one of the least-understood agencies, which is a shame, because we have kind of the biggest demonstrable impact on your day-to-day-life,” Gillett said.
She added that PURA acts like a court, and depends on evidence to help make appropriate decisions.
When a company wants to raise its rates that customers pay, they apply to PURA who considers the request. Two companies have recently filed applications with PURA to raise their customers’ rates – United Illuminating and Aquarion Water Company.
PURA can’t be swayed by residents simply saying they are against an increase, Gillett said.
“I have elected officials saying ‘aren’t you the consumer watchdog?’” Gillett said. “The answer is, not really. We’re a judge. If we were called judges instead of commissioners, I think people would be like, ‘oh, I go to PURA and make my case and explain why the utilities shouldn’t get what they’re asking for’.”
The “watchdog” role is that of the Consumer Counsel for the State of Connecticut, Claire E. Coleman and her staff. Their office is located in the same complex with PURA, and they are tasked with advocating on behalf of ratepayers in nearly all PURA proceedings, according to Coleman.
“The Office of Consumer Counsel is currently reviewing the voluminous applications that both Aquarian and UI have submitted to increase their rates, are requesting additional information through interrogatories, and are working proactively to identify opportunities for savings and benefits for ratepayers. We look forward to presenting alternative, pro-ratepayer options before PURA during the hearings in these rate cases,” she said.
Coleman applauded PURA’s work in helping the public understand how the process works and how they can get involved.
Residents, municipalities, or other organizations can submit their evidence for PURA to consider. “They can put on their own witnesses with testimony, they can cross-examine the utility’s witnesses. They can file legal briefs, then we issue a draft decision,” Gillett said. “There is a lot of process that looks very much like a court case.”
Instead of simply saying they can’t afford a rate increase, Gillett explained, residents need to get more specific – like bad service including lights always flickering.
“I need actual evidence as to why they should not get more money,” Gillett said.
PURA’s job when evaluating rate increases comes from two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which establish that a utility is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to recover prudently-incurred costs and a reasonable rate of return on their capital investment.
“When somebody says in the media, ‘I would direct PURA to not approve any additional increases,’ – it’s like, ok, well then you’ve never read the U.S. Supreme Court,” Gillett said.
There have been organizations that interacted with the agency on behalf of their members, including the Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA).
CCA voiced its concerns to PURA, which in August, ruled that the state’s largest electric and gas companies can’t resume shutting off customers’ service until May 2023 as these companies did not appropriately inform low-income customers about payment plans. As a result, these companies have to improve their communications for such programs.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), which represents 168 municipalities, and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns has also gotten involved in various cases.
Kevin Maloney, CCM’s director of communications, said that organization has worked both with and before PURA on many occasions.
“Most recently PURA, under Commissioner Marissa Gillet, participated in a PURA 101 webinar series for our members to understand how PURA works and how municipal participation and input is critical to the work PURA does,” Maloney said.
Maloney said CCM was one organization that submitted comments regarding municipal experiences with the utility companies during Storm Isaias in 2020.
PURA’s investigation – which included the consideration of 500 written comments from the public – found that Eversource did not adequately prepare or respond to the storm. United Illuminating, although their response was not ideal, fared better than Eversource, but the decision required enhanced response plans from both companies. PURA also fined Eversource $28.5 million and UI $1.2 million.
Gillett said the workshops and YouTube videos will continue. PURA hopes to release its first newsletter next week.
“We want people to know what we’re doing,” she said. “It’s important.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from the Office of Consumer Counsel about its role in the process.