A Note from Your People's Counsel
October first begins the start of fiscal year 2018. The date also marks the opening of the period when DC residents can apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP. The federally-funded program helps eligible consumers pay energy bills and locally is administered by the DC Department of Energy & Environment.
DOEE is now taking applications from residents who are currently disconnected. If you are not disconnected, October 1 st is when you can call 311 to set up an appointment or go to doee.dc.gov/liheap to fill out an application. OPC also welcomes your questions about LIHEAP.
Since 1981, LIHEAP has helped millions of vulnerable residents across the country keep the power on. According to DOEE, more than 22,000 District households received LIHEAP in fiscal year 2016. While it is not under OPC’s authority to provide monetary assistance, numerous consumers reach out to OPC when they need help paying their utility bills. And LIHEAP is a critical program to which we make referrals.
LIHEAP literally has been a lifesaver for the working poor and consumers on fixed incomes. However, the President’s fiscal year 2018 budget, now being debated by Congress, proposed elimination of the program. In July, I signed a letter with other consumer advocates and attorneys general from almost 30 states to convey the importance of preserving LIHEAP. Earlier this month, Congress approved a continuing resolution funding the government at current levels, including LIHEAP, through December 8.
After that, funding for people who desperately need help paying electric and natural gas bills is uncertain. I urge lawmakers to think hard before cutting a program that has been extremely helpful to the residents of the District of Columbia.
On Friday, September 29, the Office of the People’s Counsel filed testimony with the DC Public Service Commission urging the Commission to reject the application of WGL Holdings and AltaGas to merge their companies. Based on its review and analysis of the filing submitted by the applicants, OPC concludes that the proposed merger is not in the public interest and will not provide benefits to ratepayers that exceed the considerable costs that will result.
In April, WGL, the parent company of Washington Gas, and AltaGas, a Canadian utility, filed an application with the PSC seeking permission to allow AltaGas to acquire WGL in an all-cash transaction worth about $4.5 billion. OPC’s team of legal and technical experts has closely scrutinized the companies’ application to determine whether it meets the Commission’s legal standard for mergers. Specifically, OPC has focused on whether the proposed merger will provide Washington Gas customers with tangible benefits, not harm them, and otherwise will be in the public interest.
OPC’s testimony highlights several serious deficiencies with the application and outlines ways in which ratepayers would likely suffer should the merger be approved. For example, available evidence demonstrates that the proposed merger could result in the credit rating of Washington Gas being downgraded, which could lead to higher rates for consumers. Moreover, the merger could have a negative impact on the economy of the District of Columbia. OPC also identifies and takes issue with the lack of adequate commitments by the companies in their application that would help improve the safety and reliability of Washington Gas’s distribution system.
The PSC will hold evidentiary hearings on the application—designated as Formal Case No. 1142--in December of this year. A final decision is expected by April 2018.
OPC will be reaching out to inform and educate consumers about this important case.
This spring, OPC’s Consumer Services Division staff began to notice an uptick in complaints from WGL customers about disconnection notices with excessively high deposit amounts that would be required for resumption of service. According to the Consumer Bill of Rights (CBOR), utility companies can apply deposits to accounts that are either significantly in arrears or because of inconsistent payments made over several months. Deposits had never been more than $100. However, an increasing number of consumers called OPC to explain that, though their payments were late, they received a notice of intent to disconnect, along with required deposits ranging from $200 to $500.
In response to an OPC complaints inquiry, WGL staff explained that new accounting software generated deposit requests, even if payments were just one day late. In several instances, WGL demanded deposits as high as $500 on past due balances as low as $30. With the addition of high deposits, consumers would have difficulty paying the past due balances.
In discussions with WGL representatives, OPC’s Litigation and Consumer Services Divisions staff determined that WGL’s interpretation of the tariffs used to justify the high deposits were not in compliance with CBOR deposit rules.
As a result of OPC's advocacy for consumers, WGL agreed to waive the high amounts and return to the $100 deposits that had been the practice. OPC staff will continue to note trends to ensure the District’s utility consumers are treated fairly.
On the heels of the Office of the People’s Counsel’s aggressive advocacy on behalf of District ratepayers during the Exelon-Pepco merger, the utility has contributed to a new workforce training program called the “DC Infrastructure Academy.”
During the DC Public Service Commission merger proceedings, OPC steadfastly pushed for the merging parties to provide tangible benefits for consumers, including job training and workforce development opportunities. In approving the merger, the Commission heeded OPC’s call and ordered that “to promote local employment and the local economy in the District, Exelon” [would] “contribute $5.2 million to District workforce development programs.” The Commission further set forth that the contribution could not be recovered through utility rates.
In early September, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a memorandum of intent to establish the Academy, with supporting funds included in the District’s budget. In addition, Pepco and Washington Gas will provide $500,000 each in cash contributions, donated human resources, equipment, and other materials and services over the first five years of the Academy's operation.
The DC Infrastructure Academy is targeted to open early next year on the St. Elizabeth’s campus in Ward 8. The program will bring multiple infrastructure-related workforce development activities together under one roof to provide underserved and unemployed residents with specialized training and necessary skills to obtain and maintain careers, according to the Mayor’s Office.
The infrastructure industry is one of the fastest growing fields in the nation. OPC is pleased to have had a role in making it possible for DC residents to benefit from this trend.
OPC has released two new publications: A Consumer's Guide to Third Party Suppliers and OPC's 2016 Annual Report: Community Engagement - A Pipeline to Power. Both brochures can be downloaded at opc-dc.gov and by clicking on the covers.
"These documents will help District residents and other stakeholders navigate the increasingly complex energy marketplace and remind them of the numerous services OPC provides, including resolving complaints against utilities on a one-on- one basis," said People's Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye.
The Third Party Supplier Guide is a necessary tool as TPS energy companies are soliciting new customers on a daily basis. The guide will help protect consumers from any questionable marketing practices by these companies. The 2016 Annual Report chronicles how OPC's litigation services, consumer outreach, and energy efficiency and sustainability divisions have tackled the diverse issues that consumers of electric, natural gas and local telephone services faced through mid- 2017.
Be sure to check out the new materials by clicking the images above!
This month’s employee spotlight is focused on OPC’s Director of Litigation, Laurence C. Daniels, Esq. Born in the District and raised just outside city lines in Lanham, Maryland, Laurence’s career journey is proof that you can always come home.
He has been a key member of OPC’s legal team since coming aboard in the year 2000, and has been serving on the front lines to ensure consumer protections and interests remain top priorities in the District’s public utility forum.
Right after graduating from Howard University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, Laurence ventured to the Midwest and began working for a Chicago- based company to market telecommunications and cable television plant products. A few years later, Laurence found himself back at Howard University, this time pursuing a law degree, which he achieved in 1997.
Equipped with a Juris Doctor and experience in marketing telecommunications products, Laurence transformed his life and career experiences into a successful run working in utility law. He began working at OPC as an Assistant People’s Counsel and has since maturated into managing the Litigation Services Division... proof that hard work and integrity do not go unrewarded. In his spare time, Laurence enjoys attending school functions, sporting events, music recitals, and church with his wife and kids.
OPC is advocating for consumers in the following cases before the PSC:
Formal Case No.1142 – The Merger of AltaGas & Washington Gas Holdings, Inc.
On August 16, 2017, OPC filed a Motion to Compel Discovery Responses from AltaGas and WGL Holdings. In April 2017, the Commission opened a proceeding to review the proposed merger of the two companies as to whether the merger would be in the public interest.
Formal Case No. 1144 - Capital Grid Project
On August 22, OPC filed a Petition for Investigation of the Reasonableness, Safety and Need for the Capital Grid Project; and made two other related filings in August. The filings follow Pepco’s May 10, 2017 Formal Notice of Construction of the Capital Grid Project, which outlines the proposed construction of transmission lines from the Takoma Substation to the Champlain Substation and upgrades aging infrastructure. On May 24, 2017, the PSC opened an investigation into the reasonableness, safety and need for the proposed work.
Formal Case No. RM3-2014-01 - The Investigation into the Public Service Commission's Rules of Practice and Procedure
On August 22, OPC filed Corrected Initial Comments on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Containing Proposed Amendments to Chapter 3 of Title 15 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations.
GT97-3, GT06-1, Formal Case Nos. 1027 & 1115 – PROJECT pipes
On August 23, OPC filed Initial Comments on Washington Gas Light Company’s (WGL) Response to Order No. 18815, in which the Commission directed WGL to file estimates for each project on its Annual Project List beginning with the 2018 filing. PROJECTpipes is the first part of a 40-year program to replace WGL’s aging gas pipeline infrastructure.
Formal Case No. 1139 – Pepco’s Application for Authority to Increase Existing Retail Rates and Charges for Electric Distribution Service
On August 24, 2017, OPC filed an Application for Reconsideration of Commission Order No. 18846. OPC seeks reconsideration of several decisions in Order No. 18846 that negatively impact the District's electric residential ratepayers.
OPC will be out at the following events:
Health and Benefit Fair Associates of Hyatt Regency
400 New Jersey Ave. NW
Tues., October 3 rd
715 Randolph St. NW (First Baptist Church)
Wed., October 4 th
Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration
1419 Columbia Rd. NW (Latin American Youth Center)
Wed., October 4 th
on Disability Services Resource Fair
801 Mt. Vernon Pl. NW (Washington Convention Center)
Thurs., October 5th
Winter Ready Workshop
1325 G St. NW (Public Service Commission)
Mon., October 12th
Neighborhood Impact: Opportunity Squared
419 7th St. NW Suite 300 (Impact Hub DC)
Sat., October 14 th
Resident Association Energy Efficiency Workshop
1625 Montana Ave. NE
Mon., October 16 th
Ft. Dupont Civic Association Meeting
3000 Penn. Ave. SE (Pennsylvania Baptist Church)
Tues., October 17 th
6th Annual Southwest Waterfront AARP Health Fair
1311 Delaware Ave. SW
Wed., October 18 th
100 Gallatin St. NE (Briya Elem. School)
Tues. October 24 th
Energy Day in the Community
4401 Sheriff Rd. NE
Wed., October 25 th
5000 Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. NE (Marvin Gaye Center)
Sat., October 28 th
Energy Day in the Community
1415 Gallatin St. NW (St. Luke Baptist Church)
Sat., October 28 th
2730 MLK Jr. Ave SE (Gateway Pavilion)
Tues., October 30 th
People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye and OPC staff getting ready to answer consumer questions at the WJLA 7 On Your Side Utility Experts Phone Bank.
Will the Jenga blocks fall? That was the question of the day as OPC stages PARK(ing) Day pop up parks at 14 th & U Streets NW and on Martin Luther King Jr Avenue SE. Parks are set up in metered parking spaces to promote open space and spark conversation about conservation in urban areas across the country.
Assistant People’s Counsel Barbara Burton mingles with participants at the Tenant Association Annual Summit September 16 after speaking about how to control utility costs.
Have bags, will travel! The OPC in Your Neighborhood program brings bags of goodies and information about how we help consumers with utility issues to events all across the District. Attendees of the DC State Fair in Southwest and the DC Youth Count Kick Off at RFK Stadium Skate Park grabbed a bag. Contact OPC if you want OPC to join a neighborhood event near you.