PSC chairman calls his drinks with utility prez, a “rookie mistake”by John Kennedy | April 11th, 2011
Gov. Rick Scott’s appointment of four new state utility regulators was unanimously approved Monday by a Senate panel, despite criticism from a ratepayers’ organization about Chairman Art Graham’s huddling with a water company’s lobbyist during a Washington, D.C. conference.
Graham already has an Ethics Commission complaint filed against him by David Bussey of Zephyrhills, an administrator with a recreational vehicle park served by Aqua Utilities Florida, whose customers also include about 1,200 Lake Osborne Estates residents west of Lake Worth.
Bussey called for the Ethics and Elections Committee to deny Graham’s confirmation over his almost hourlong meeting with Aqua’s regional president, Christopher Franklin, during a break in a national utilities conference in February at Washington’s Renaissance Hotel. Graham said the pair didn’t speak about Aqua’s rate issues.
Instead, Graham told the committee, “We were just two guys sitting back, killing time.”
But Bussey countered, saying, “How much time does it take before any wrongdoing takes place? What’s the tipping point?”
Aqua has about 16,000 customers across 17 Florida counties. Many have been hit with steep, recent rate increases, with the company doubling Lake Osborne’s rates in 2009 and seeking another 30 percent increase this year.
The Senate panel seemed unfazed by Graham’s lapse, which he called a “rookie mistake.”
Graham and Commissioners Ronald Brisé, Julie Brown and Eduardo Balbis, a former assistant city administrator in West Palm Beach, were approved for confirmation Monday. They still must go before the full Senate.
The PSC, which decides millions of dollars in utility matters, lately has turned into a revolving door.
After the PSC rejected a Florida Power & Light rate hike last year, four of the five commissioners failed to gain reappointment. Two were rejected by the state Senate, and two failed to get renominated — prompting charges that the commissioners’ reappointments were somehow derailed by the utility company.
FPL President and CEO Armando Olivera has rejected that speculation as “rumors, innuendo and baseless attacks.”
Despite vows to shun new taxes or fees, the Senate also is advancing a proposal giving FPL and other investor-owned utilities authority to increase customer rates $377 million over the next five years.
The electric companies, heavy contributors to both political parties, would be allowed to tack on the additional charge — without prior approval by state regulators — to cover their costs of building solar and biomass energy plants or buying renewable energy from producers.
For FPL’s 4 million customers, mostly in South Florida, the Jupiter-based utility’s $206.1 million share could mean an extra $2.40-a-month on average, or $28.80 annually, to encourage the use of alternate sources to oil-, gas-, coal-, or nuclear power.
Supporters said the move will create jobs in the burgeoning renewable industry. Critics said the extra charge is a giveaway, especially to FPL which last year was denied most of a $1.25 billion rate hike by the Florida Public Service Commission.