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California Public Utilities Commission under fire over budget errors

March 6, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
The California Public Utilities Commission has been under a lot scrutiny lately after a number of audits found it cannot account for billions of dollars in fees it collects from utility customers. So no one knows whether customers were overcharged.

Every month, fee after fee is assessed on electricity, natural gas, cable and phone bills -- much of it going to special accounts to pay for various programs. The fee is often based on how much the programs need.

"Those forecasts were wrong and that is not acceptable. The ratepayers were not harmed by those errors. No program services were affected," said Paul Clanon, CPUC executive director.

Lawmakers scoffed at the notion that customers were not harmed because during years of bad forecasting, CPUC continued to raise fees.

"You guys don't know where the money is. But we continue to ask ratepayers to pay more," said Assemblyman Steve Bradford (D-Inglewood).

The CPUC's budget forecasters can't even get the math right, stating the agency has trillions when it was actually billions.

We told you this week about California's new program to give free cellphones to the homeless and other low-income residents. We asked whether the Universal Service Fund Fee would increase to subsidize the program. No one could give a straight answer, but on Wednesday, the CPUC told lawmakers, "yes." In fact, it would double.

"In this particular fiscal year, we're going to have to increase the fee level in order to be able to accommodate the program needs," said Michelle Cooke, CPUC administrative services director.

While promising to do better, the CPUC insists it has the best fee-setting practices in the country.


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