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Kentucky utility regulators understaffed, under-resourced

Ryan Van Velzer

Public Service Commission Chairman Kent Chandler told state lawmakers Wednesday the utility regulatory agency doesn’t have the staff or resources to manage the current workload — let alone the work expected from a windfall of federal funding for infrastructure projects. 

It’s hard to tell from the name, but the Public Service Commission is the state agency in charge of regulating most utilities, including electricity, gas, some water and even a little bit of telecommunications. 

Chandler’s frank admission came in response to a question from Republican state Rep. Suzanne Miles of Owensboro about whether the Public Service Commission had adequate staffing.  

“No,” Chandler said during the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources & Energy. “I don’t mean to be flippant, Representative Miles, but I just want to be honest. We do not.”

The commission is meant to ensure both that utilities provide service in a reliable, safe manner at reasonable rates and that utilities remain profitable and see a return on their investments, said former PSC spokesperson Andrew Melnykovych. 

The PSC, for example,set the rates customers pay for electricity, and theyimposed the moratorium on utility shut-offs during the first year of the pandemic. 

The commission is funded through an assessment paid by all utilities under its jurisdiction, but over the last decade or so, lawmakers have swept a substantial portion of that money into the general fund, Melnykovych said. 

As a result, the commission has lost staff while the workload has increased, he said. That’s led staff to prioritize work that had statutory deadlines, like utility rate cases, which set the rates customers are charged for electricity, gas and water. 

“If you have the same or a heavier workload and you have fewer people to do it, it’s going to take longer; it’s a basic law of physics,” Melnykovych said. “If there were no deadlines, they moved it to the bottom of the pile.”

Chandler echoed those sentiments Wednesday. Utilities file rate cases about two to three times as often as they used to, and about half of the 70 person staff works on them, he said. 

“Maybe a quarter of those work on a rate case and three commissioners and we are supposed to be able to rule on a 30,000 page case that has to begin and end within six months,” Chandler said. 

The commission is already doing more with less, but will be further strained in the coming months as American Rescue Plan and infrastructure act dollars fuel new projects, which need PSC approval, he said. 

“It’s adding up and we have less and less people everyday and frankly if it wasn’t for the dedicated staff of folks that we have, I don’t know how we would get orders out on time as it is,” Chandler said. 

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