Week in review: Utility rates, a legacy of audits and 'green jobs' that work

Week in review: Utility rates, a legacy of audits and 'green jobs' that work

March 8th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Watch your utilities

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam calls it an "alternative regulatory" method.

But the bill he is championing to allow monopoly utilities like Tennessee American Water and Chattanooga Gas Co. to seek annual rate hikes with less review, sounds more like simply lessening oversight at ratepayer expense.

"What this does in our opinion is make it more likely that rates will increase for business and households," said Vance Broemel, an attorney with the Consumer Advocate Division of the state attorney general's office.

Haslam has always touted a platform to "streamline" regulation for businesses. In this bill, "alternative regulatory" methods mean giving utilities more opportunity to raise rates with less transparency and review.

For example, it would allow investor-owned utilities to seek annual rate reviews and recovery of expenses instead of going through a full-blown rate proceeding before the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. Utilities could "cherry pick" areas for rate increases without regulators looking at their overall earnings. In a full-fledged rate case, regulators look at a utility's overall finances to balance a reasonable rate of return with consumer protection.

Constituents might ask the governor and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, [he is handling the administration's bill] just whose interest this streamlines.

It doesn't appear to be the interest of ratepayers.

Another Littlefield legacy?

Eight years ago, Mayor Ron Littlefield's first term began with a pledge to find waste and fraud in city government from its previous administration.

He beefed-up internal audit division from one person to four auditors, a supervisor and a clerk. The four auditors earned annual salaries of more than $41,000 to nearly $52,000, and Stan Sewell, the director, in 2006 was earning $74,575 a year.

The salaries were worth the expense, Littlefield said.

On Thursday, two days after Andy Berke was elected to succeed Littlefield, the lightning rod of those audits, Kenardo Curry, former Neighborhood Services director, was acquitted by a jury of official misconduct and theft charges.

Sewell's 2005 audit charged that Curry used $25,000 of city money on four pairs of earrings, electric recording equipment, a digital camera, a DVD player, a television, two airplane tickets and maintenance work on a church.

But those details were not included in evidence presented by the prosecutors, who said they used the best proof they had. They contended he used city money for studies and reports on property he intended to buy.

Curry had maintained his innocence since he was fired and indicted in 2006.

Jurors, who had heard two days of testimony, took about an hour to agree with Curry.

Charges against four other city employees in the investigation had long since been dismissed, three after they completed judicial diversion.

In the end, the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for nothing, and likely will spend still more if lawsuits are filed.

Sprouts of a green jobs program

A fledgling "green jobs" program is a good value from a dollars-and-cents standpoint and seems to be off to a good start locally.

The goal of the program, funded with a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and run by the Enterprise Center's Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Program, is to help 75 unemployed or underemployed people train for and get good-paying jobs.

That's a bargain -- $4,000 in training per person -- if it works.

The students will come away with basic certificates for jobs in lead paint, mold, asbestos and hazardous waste remediation, to name a few.

So far the results are pretty good.

Two classes totaling 43 people have graduated since July. Of the 18 students who graduated from the first course, 13, or 72 percent, now have full-time jobs. The second class just graduated Wednesday. Ultimately, the goal is to place 85 percent of students in a full-time jobs that pay between $10 and $12 an hour.

Spending $4,000 to get a person fully employed and paying about that much in taxes in one year sounds like a good deal.