Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who Does Texas' PUC Really Serve?

Did you see the piece on Channel 11 last night about how AT&T overcharged the Harris County Hospital District for the past 13-years—admitted it in court--received a judgment to pay a lump sum back to the County…and the state Public Utilitiy Commission overruled the judge, and cut the penalty in half??
Who is the PUC working to protect here?

Harris County had hired Southwestern Tariff Analysts, an outside auditor, to review phone bills, and discovered AT&T had been overcharging the county for over 13 years to the tune of $487,000--all because AT&T claimed Harris County wasn’t paying on time.

Most of us have 16-days to pay our phone bills, but under The Prompt Payment Act, governmental entities like the County Hospital System up to 30-days to pay.
Unless dealing with AT&T.
With the Texas PUC looking on.

AT&T wasn’t applying the Prompt Payment Act.
Guess they didn't think "Harris County" meant "government."
The case went to court, and Administrative Law Judge Craig Bennett recommended a “full refund in one lump sum payment.” It was obvious to the Judge, and most other rational-thinking human beings that keeping the funds would be “unjust and untenable.”

You can draw your own conclusions about the accuity of the Texas Public Utility Commission, which disagreed with the judge and ordered only a partial refund. PUC Chairman Barry Smitherman denied giving any special treatment, and on camera last night, tried to defend the indefensible: letting AT&T off the hook.

Smitherman said both he and PUC staff found Harris County also at fault, for not spotting the billing errors years earlier.

Here's a rhetorical question: If a company overcharges you, but you don't catch it, are you still owed a refund? Apparently not, if the PUC is looking out for the company charging you.

The Commission cut in half the refund, resulting in a $150,000 windfall for AT&T for cheating the County. Which flies in the face of the PUC’s core mission—to protect the customer.

AT&T has paid the PUC-ordered partial refund of $338,745, saying it has “acted in good faith all along, based on its interpretation of the law.”

AT&T took advantage of the confusion over conflicting regulations, and banked the cash, and only when they got caught with their hands in the till did they cough up a refund, reduced by half, thanks to their cronies on the PUC.

The next step that needs to be taken is the removal of Barry Smitherman from the PUC, and possible replacement of all three commissioners. Clearly, they’re not clear on the mission of the Commission.


Anonymous said...

The outrage should be directed at the people running the Harris County Hospital District. I assume the money they pay AT&T with is actually my tax dollars. So for 13 years, they were overpaying AT&T an average of $37,461.54 a year. Somebody there should be fired. And what I would like to know is, how many other ways are they wasting my tax dollars that nobody has found yet?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Clanton,

It's clear that the PUC doesn't serve the consumer in Texas. Here is my take on another recent PUC misstep:

An open letter to the Chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission, Barry Smitherman:

Mr. Smitherman,

I am appalled at your insensitivity, along with the rest of the commission’s lack of compassion.
State Representative Sylvester Turner and the AARP asked you and the rest of your associates for a ban on electrical disconnects during the hottest part of the summer. He termed it, “...an emergency because people’s lives are hanging in the balance.” Sounds like a reasonable request to me.
Although TXU has already issued a moratorium on disconnects for those that are elderly and financially challenged, and Reliant will be announcing a plan to help those groups, perhaps Representative Turner was asking the PUC for some kind of support.
It’s a shame that you, Mr. Smitherman, are either too short-sighted or too improperly involved with utilities to see that record heat for the past month (the hottest June on record, from what I understand), might require some extraordinary measures. It’s not supposed to get any better.
Instead, you have resisted comparisons with this summer and the summer of 2006. There was no money for assistance three years ago, but now there is, and you don’t want to help. By your own admission, there has been money in that fund every year since 2006.
You’re quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying, because the average recipient of funding will receive a 30 percent reduction, “That’s a pretty nice benefit for low-income consumers.” Like that’s supposed to solve the problem.
You and the rest of the commissioners made a decision, according to reports, without hearing anyone speak on the issue. Instead of helping the people you’re supposed to be helping, you and the commissioners decided to help the electric companies by urging people to shop for electric service. You, Mr. Smitherman, made a really insensitive statement: “The fact that the temperature and with it, electric bills, increase in the summer months should come as no surprise to anyone.”
Truly, sir, it may not come as a surprise to anyone, but to those that are on fixed incomes, or are on social assistance, and have limited funds, your statement really rings as uncaring. Those that are financially strapped have great difficulty covering the difference between a winter electric bill and a summer one. I’ve been there, and am still there, and I work full-time.
I would have to guess, Mr. Smitherman, you haven’t been there. You haven’t had to strugggle to pay your bills, or decide between food, medicine, car insurance, etc., so you can keep a roof over your family’s head.
Grow up, sir. There are many, many of us that are not as fortunate as you. The PUCT website states the mission as “...to protect customers, foster competition, and promote high quality infrastructure. Yeah, right. All you’ve succeeded in doing is leaving some of the most vulnerable to bear the ‘heat’ of the commission’s decision.

Grandpa said...

Brent, what is it with the PUC's ruling that electric customers have to pay for the electric meters that Oncor ordered before receiving the final specifications from the PUC. The meters that were wrongly ordered did not have the functionality that the PUC wanted. As a result, the consumers have to pay millions for an Oncor mistake.
You may have already discussed this but is not right. Recall the PUC! They're not looking out for ME.
Norb Schulz
Duncanville , tx. 469.774.8107