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Following energy issues in the state of Connecticut and beyond.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Consumer Advocates Wary of Potential Merger

Note: This story also appears in print editions of today's New Haven Register.
Consumer advocates are concerned that a plan to merge the state Office of Consumer Counsel into the state Department of Consumer Protection will leave resident utility ratepayers and the poor with a diminished voice.


The 14-person agency, which represents utility users in rate cases, is currently independent, even though it is located in the same New Britain building as the state Department of Public Utility Control. Under the plan put forth by Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration, the OCC would become part of the state’s consumer protection agency and would have two of its staff positions eliminated.


“The idea (behind the consolidation plan) is to have one central place where consumers would go when they have a problem,” said John Casa, under secretary for legislative affairs at the state Office of Policy and Management. Casa was uncertain about the amount of money that would be save by consolidating OCC with the Department of Consumer Protection, but said the “short term savings will be less than what we’ll see long term.”


OCC is funded by a charge on ratepayers’ utility bills. Consumer Counsel Mary Healey (shown at left) said the agency’s funding source was designed that way when lawmakers established it in 1975, to protect it from the whim of changing political administrations.


“Every few years somebody wants to get rid of us, but we don’t waver from what we do,” said Healey who became the state’s Consumer Counsel in 2001. “We’re specialists in utility matters and we belong as an agency that’s independent.”


She said it is not immediately clear if ratepayers would continue to fund the OCC if it were merged with the Department of Consumer Affairs, which gets the money it operates with from the state’s general fund.


John Howat, a senior policy analyst the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, said the move the Malloy administration is proposing “would keep the average consumer from getting a fair shake in cases before utility regulators.” What’s happening in Connecticut with OCC is part of a national trend in which government consumer advocacy organization are having their budgets reduced, are being merged into large state agencies or are being eliminated entirely, Howat said.


“It’s critical for consumer to have an independent representative in rate cases, one that is free from electoral politics that takes place every time a new administration comes into office,” he said.


Call Luther Turmelle at 203-789-5706 or follow him on Twitter @LutherTurmelle.