Lending your voice to a seeminly mundane regulatory issue like a utility rate hike is hardly exciting, but the practice can save taxpayers millions of dollars, as three Sidney residents can testify (pun intended).
Montana Dakota Utilities, which provides natural gas in Eastern Montana, requested a signficant rate increase for consumers. Thankfully, Montana’s Public Service Commission acts as regulatory board for such increases and is tasked with protecting the rate-payer. Such changes need to be vetted through the PSC and Montana law requires a time for comment to be provided to the public.
Unfortunately, such increases can cost the taxpayer and rate payers millions of dollars collectively, even in a mild rate hike. But what Montana Dakota Utilities (MDU) proposed to the Public Service Commission (PSC) amounted to nearly a 20 percent increase in rates. Dollar for dollar, this means that Eastern Montana natural gas consumers were slated to pay nearly ten million dollars in extra rates to the troubled provider.
PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci presided over the Zoom listening session on Friday, “attended” by three of his constituents in Sidney. At the beginning of the meeting, Commissioner Pinocci was the sole commissioner present. After several minutes he was joined by one other, PSC chairman, Brad Johnson.
During the meeting, only three Sidney residents gave testimony regarding the rate increase, which would effect more than 85 thousand Montana residents. Although some might consider it disappointing that only three spokesmen would speak up in opposition to the hike, it seemed to have done the trick.
Sidney mayor, Rick Norby, Richland County Commissioner, Duane Mitchell, and Gideon Knox Group president, Jordan Hall, all called in to voice their opposition.
Hall was the first to testify, and the pastor gave some detailed research regarding MDU that made the rate hike both inexplicable and inexcusable. Chiefly, Hall relayed MDU’s stock prices happened to be up nealry 6% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The company, it turns out, was not struggling financially if stock prices are any indication. Furthermore, Hall pointed out that Northwest Energy – a larger utility provider in central and western Montana – had requested to the PSC to lower rates only last year because the price of natural gas had decreased rather than increased. And finally, Hall demonstrated that natural gas prices were at a nearly 20-year low.
“Any increase,” Hall said, “seems unwarranted. But a twenty-percent increase is unbelievably tone-deaf in a record economic crisis.”
Mayor Norby and Commissioner Mitchell also shared their thoughts, sticking up for the rate-payer and trying to talk sense into MDU and stave off their hike.
Within minutes of the testimonies, MDU had contacted the PSC to state that they would renegotiate their rate hike and were reconsidering the request.
Hall said, “I’m thankful that Commissioner Pinocci has made a concerted effort to explain to his constituents what the Public Service Commission does. Most have no idea, and if it wasn’t for Pinocci I wouldn’t have known to be checking their website for information about upcoming rate hike proposals.
Remember that when it comes to the “sausage making” of state government. Sometimes just a little civic participation can save millions of dollars and protect the public.