For more than 20 years AARP Vermont has been representing the interests of ratepayers in utility cases before the Vermont Public Utility Commission. It has been a long, expensive and frustrating battle.

Over those two decades AARP Vermont has stood up for consumers in a number of high profile cases: we opposed rate designs that shifted costs to residential ratepayers; fought to lower unfairly high rate increases; opposed sweetheart deals to lower electric rates for large industrial companies like the former IBM; argued for the return of $21 million in ratepayer funds as a result of the merger of our two largest utilities with Gaz Metro; advocated for  a low-income electric bill assistance program when we were the only state in the Northeast without one; opposed the use of alternative regulation plans that greatly favored the interests of utility companies over ratepayers; and fought against sticking ratepayers with the massive cost overruns from the mismanaged expansion of the Vermont Gas pipeline.

We have lost some and won some. But what’s striking is that in all that time, AARP Vermont, a consumer advocacy organization , and the Vermont Department of Public Service’s Public Advocacy Division — which is charged by law with representing the “public’s interests” in utility cases — have never been on the same side. Huh?

How is it possible that AARP Vermont’s interest in assuring that residential ratepayers pay fair and reasonable utility costs, has not — in more than 20 years — aligned with the goals of the state’s Public Advocate? Therein lies a major systemic  problem, and Vermont consumers will continue to pay the price.  It’s now time for the Legislature to step up to ensure that the mission of the Public Advocate is to actually protect Vermont ratepayers.

The regulatory system in Vermont is broken. It has lost its independence and mission. The state Public Advocate and Department staff have repeatedly ignored their own expert witnesses and sided with utility company interests over Vermonters. Sadly, the Vermont Public Utility Commission has consistently rubber stamped rate increases and most other matters that favor the utilities.

The Vermont Gas pipeline expansion is the most recent example. Vermont Gas, with the help of the state’s Public Advocate, siphoned off millions of ratepayer dollars to help soften the blow of massive cost overruns due to the company’s mismanagement of the project. Our regulators supported that deal! Now, Vermont Gas customers will be paying for that pipeline for decades to come.

With Gaz Metro from Canada owning over 80% of Vermont’s electric service as well as our only natural gas company, AARP remains concerned that Vermont families and elders are more vulnerable than ever.  We have devoted considerable resources in the fight to protect utility customers in the increasingly complex regulatory process. It’s time for our leaders and lawmakers to step up and ensure that ratepayers are represented by a truly independent advocate. Only then will we come back to the table.

Greg Marchildon, AARP Vermont State Director