Community Columns

Why should customers pay for service they never had?

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has a mandate to regulate PG&E and to establish "just and reasonable" rates. Recently the CPUC authorized charges to customers who never received electric service from PG&E. This is neither just nor reasonable. The CPUC is charged with protecting the consumers' interest, not the utilities'.

At issue is what PG&E calls "New Municipal Departing Load" (NMDL) charges. This is a sham concept that does not pass the laugh test. The truth is, PG&E did not invest money to build power plants, substations or to put wire in the air to serve this so-called municipal departing load. In fact, PG&E has to buy power every day because it doesn't have enough energy to service its current customers. And, PG&E recently asked the commission to increase rates by billions of dollars so it can rebuild its power grid, which can no longer keep up with demand.

The commission needs to tell the truth: The NMDL tax is about punishing citizens and communities that dare to exercise their right to compete with PG&E's monopoly. By allowing PG&E to collect a tax on customers who never received service, the state commission is stepping outside its regulatory authority into taxation authority, which is beyond its original mandate.

King George III attempted this in 1773 and found his tea dumped into Boston Harbor by Americans who refused to pay an unjust tax. Like the Public Utilities Commission, King George was trying to protect the private East India Co., which faced bankruptcy due to corruption and mismanagement.

If I am a customer of PG&E and I move, disconnect my utility services and leave my house empty for several months, should I expect to continue to receive bills from PG&E? That may sound absurd, but that is the next logical threat from a Public Utilities Commission that has become an advocate for PG&E and its shareholders.

Is this NMDL tax legal? That is questionable, but whether it is or not, it is immoral and unjust and it must be stopped. As St. Augustine wrote, "A law that is unjust is no law at all. And, it can be no crime to violate that which is no law."

The commission abdicated its public trust when PG&E filed bankruptcy and the commission agreed not to do anything that could be viewed as a detriment to PG&E's credit rating. Effectively, the commission agreed to "unregulate" PG&E and give the company free rein to cut service quality and pass on costs in rates, even if no service was ever provided or reasonably expected.

To protect PG&E's monopoly by imposing an unjust tax is not the right of the state commission; it is their wrong. The Legislature must act to correct this injustice. It is time for a law in California that prohibits any regulated utility -- whether it is a phone company, gas company, water company or an electric utility -- from levying a charge for a service which was never provided or which has been terminated.

Tonight at 7:30 there is a meeting at the Gene Bianchi Community Center, 110 S. Second Ave., in Oakdale to discuss the NMDL tax. Whether you received a bill from PG&E or not, you should attend this meeting because these unjust taxes will not stop with NMDL if PG&E continues to be unregulated.

Shields is general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.