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In 1879, the Georgia General Assembly established the Railroad Commission of Georgia for the purpose of regulating railroad passenger and freight rates, services and operations. As Georgia's population grew and industry expanded, it was necessary for the Commission to grow as well. The Legislature, therefore, conferred upon the Commission additional regulatory responsibilities with periods of regulatory expansion and deregulation. In 1922, the Legislature changed the name of the Railroad Commission to the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to reflect the increasing variety of services and utilities included under the Commission's jurisdiction.
Today, five elected Commissioners, supported by approximately 90 staff members, make decisions that affect the lives of every Georgian each time a telephone is picked up, a light is turned on, and a gas burner is used.
The Georgia Public Service Commission has exclusive power to decide what are fair and reasonable rates for services under its jurisdiction. It must balance Georgia citizens' need for reliable services and reasonable rates with the need for utilities to earn a reasonable return on investment. The Commission protects consumers' interests while abiding by legal standards in setting rates. All matters scheduled for public hearing are heard by the Commissioners or in special cases, by an appointed hearing officer in open session.
In regulating rates, the Commission does not guarantee profits to service providers. It is the company's responsibility to make prudent, sound business decisions to produce earnings. When regulated companies bring a rate request before the PSC, it may be taken up first by one of the Commission's three standing committees on which the commissioners serve: Telecommunications, Energy, or Administrative Affairs.
Assisting the commissioners are experts on utility operations. These experts may provide testimony and make recommendations at rate, arbitration or other proceedings.
To protect the public interest and to fulfill its responsibilities, the Commission may:
Administrative sessions of the Georgia Public Service Commission are held the first and third Tuesday of each month in hearing room number 110 at 244 Washington St. in Atlanta. Proceedings are open to the public.
The Commission's 2011 fiscal year budget which began on July 1, 2010 is $9,110,146 which includes $8,439,986 in state funds and $600,000 in federal funds.
Steps in a typical rate case include:
The Utility Files Its Petition
The utility requesting a rate increase first serves a public notice of intent. It then files a rate case petition with all supporting data, including a request for the proposed rates to take effect in 30 days. The Commission studies the utility's petition and sets a hearing date.
PSC Studies the Petition
By law, the proposed new rates go into effect 30 days from the filing date, unless the commissioners vote to suspend them. Normally, the commissioners order a five-month suspension of the proposed rate so the staff can study all data submitted by the utility. At this time, the Commission may designate its advocate and advisory staff teams. During a rate case, the Commission's designated advocate staff is considered separate from the five elected commissioners and the advisory staff. The advocate staff puts on its own case, usually opposing the utility's request. The advocate staff's attorney cross-examines utility witnesses.
A separate team of advisory staff is designated to answer commissioners' questions and to support them. The advocate staff prosecutes the case. Also, the Consumers' Utility Counsel (CUC) represents residential and small commercial consumers in the rate case procedure. The utility publishes a notice of hearing in newspapers of general circulation in its service area. This is done 30 to 60 days after the filing. The PSC issues a procedural and scheduling order and may hold a pre-hearing conference with all interested parties. The Commission staff can request any additional information it needs on the rate request, and the utility provides it.
Interested Parties Intervene
For 30 days following the first published notice of the proceedings, requests to intervene are considered by the Commission. The Commission grants the requests either at the pre-hearing conference or on the first day of the hearing. The intervenors can request information from the utility, which it must provide. The Commission staff and other intervenors begin their investigations. Adversary staff activities may include hiring consultants, taking depositions from witnesses, limited auditing of selected utility records and gathering other data.
Formal Rate Hearings Conducted
The utility presents its case at a public hearing conducted by the commissioners within 90 to 120 days after the initial filing. These hearings generally last from three to five days. Public witnesses usually present their testimony the first day. All witnesses are subject to cross-examination by the adversary staff and other intervenors.
The advocate staff completes its review and develops the Commission position on various elements in the case. The advocate staff does not take an official position until it is ready to pre-file its own testimony. The advocate staff makes an independent recommendation on rates 10 days before the hearing date. Both the advocate staff and intervenors pre-file testimony and exhibits.
A second set of public hearings, 120 to 165 days after the initial filing, is held for the staff and other Intervenors to present their case and to be cross-examined by the utility.
The utility files rebuttal testimony 10 days before a third set of public hearings. At those hearings, the utility presents its rebuttal to the staff's and other intervenors' findings. This third set of public hearings is held 160 to 165 days after the initial filing. During this set of hearings, the Commission Staff and other intervenors cross-examine the utility.
Commission Issues Rate Order
The Commissioners take the case under advisement following the third set of public hearings. All parties involved-the utility, Commissioners, Commission Staff, and intervenors-review the transcript and records of the hearings and file recommendations, a proposed order and briefs.
At a subsequent administrative session, held the first and third Tuesday of each month, or at a special called meeting, the commissioners decide what, if any, rate increases to grant and when the utility can put the new rates into effect. The commissioners must make this decision within six months of the original filing date or the utility is legally entitled to 100 per cent of its request, under bond and subject to refund.
After a decision on the rate case, the Commission issues a final order. The new rates go into effect 165 to 180 days after the initial filing of the rate change request. The utility may ask the Commission to reconsider its decision within 10 days after the order. The utility may appeal the Commission's decision to the Fulton County Superior Court within 30 days after the final order. Also, the intervenors may request reconsideration and appeal the Commission's decision to the courts.
In making its decisions, the Georgia Public Service Commission has a duty to balance the service needs of Georgia's residents with the financial needs of the utility. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that rates must permit the utility to earn a return comparable to that of enterprises involving similar risk, to preserve the financial integrity of the company and to allow the company to attract investors.
The Georgia Public Service Commission requires regulated utilities to provide adequate service at fair and reasonable rates and to treat all customers equitably.