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TMCNet:  Agency's aim: 'Provide a voice' for consumers on utility rates [Austin American-Statesman]

[December 14, 2013]

Agency's aim: 'Provide a voice' for consumers on utility rates [Austin American-Statesman]

(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 14--Tonya Baer is the new Public Counsel for the Office of Public Utility Counsel who leads the state agency that represents residential and small business customers in water, electric and telecommunication rate cases, appeals and other regulatory matters.


For example, when Austin Energy's rate hike was appealed this year to the Public Utility Commission, the state agency represented the utility's residential and small business customers.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Baer in October. She came from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality where she was assistant director and special counsel for the agency's radioactive materials division. She also has served as a legislative liaison for the environmental agency, a lawyer at the Public Utility Commission, legislative liaison for the state comptroller and a senior revenue analyst in the governor's office.

Baer has a bachelor's degree and law degree from the University of South Dakota and completed the senior management program at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

As the Public Counsel, she serves ex officio on the boards of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the Texas Reliability Entity. She recently talked with the American-Statesman about the agency's goals and her role as public counsel.

Statesman: What attracted you to the job of Public Counsel for the Office of Public Utility Counsel? Baer: The energy industry plays an important role in the everyday lives of hard working Texans. From powering the businesses that grow our state economy to heating and cooling the homes in which we raise our families, energy impacts nearly everything we do. I am honored to be given this opportunity to work in such a vital arena and I will draw on my background in state fiscal operations, energy policy and law in order to best serve the citizens of Texas.

I come to the Office of Public Utility Counsel at a very exciting time. New technologies are coming online and the agency is expanding its focus to include water issues. With the increased focus on water resources and the continued need for reliable and affordable energy markets, I look forward to working with all involved parties to ensure that the voices of those we represent drive the policy making in Austin.

What is the goal of the agency when it represents residential and small commercial ratepayers in rate cases? Our goal is to provide a voice for residential and small business consumers to ensure that the services they receive are reliable, and the rates they pay are fair and affordable.

Some consumer groups argue that OPUC should be more aggressive in promoting consumer positions. Has the agency struck the right tone in the past and will there be a change in the future? I am very proud of the $1.2 billion in bill savings the agency has achieved for its customers over the last five years, and this agency will work hard every single day to continue to provide real and tangible benefits to consumers across the state.

How many rate cases is the agency involved with right now? We are currently involved in three major rate cases that impact over 600,000 customers covering a vast majority of the state.

OPUC also is involved in other types of proceedings that impact consumers including issues dealing with energy efficiency, customer protection, bringing advanced telecommunications infrastructure to our state, renewable energy, and the need for new transmission lines and generation.

The Legislature added water and wastewater cases to the agency's agenda this year. How can ratepayers get the agency's help in their disputes with the owners of private water/wastewater systems? A major concern for water utility customers has been the price they pay for service and the burden of participating individually in proceedings. As a result of legislation, OPUC will now represent customers, as a class, in contested water and wastewater cases so that individual customers will not have to face the burden of participating individually. I believe our contribution to this effort will go a long way towards achieving better quality results for all involved.

The debate over changing the wholesale electricity market has split the business community and the power industry. What is the agency's position for residential and small commercial customers? At what point will OPUC become involved? The agency is meeting with parties on all sides of the issue to discuss the various proposals. We are expecting some key reports in the next few months that will provide us a better understanding of the current electric market and possible future needs. Once we have this information, we can then begin the process of considering specific changes in areas of significance for our customers.

What are your goals for the agency during your tenure? My focus right now is to ensure OPUC continues to provide the highest quality professional representation of customers in electric and telecommunications cases, while expanding our representation to water utility customers.

I would also like to see our agency be more proactive in assisting with PUC rule-making in order to maximize potential benefits to our customers. I believe that if we get the rules right up front, we can lessen the need for expensive and protracted litigation later on.

We have challenges ahead, and many tough decisions will be made in the coming session regarding how this state addresses complex industry issues. My goal is to make sure that the first and last voice heard by those making the tough decisions will be the voice of the hard-working Texans we are privileged to represent.

------ About this series: Statesman Sunday Interview There are many interesting and insightful people in the Central Texas business community. On Sundays, the American-Statesman business team brings you in-depth interviews with some of them, focusing on topics that matter to our community. To nominate someone for the Statesman Sunday Interview, email Statesman business editor Barry Harrell at bharrell@statesman.com.

___ (c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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