August 9, 2011
PROPOSED SHUTDOWN OF DEEP CONSUMER SERVICES UNIT
By: Kevin E. McCarthy, Principal Analyst
You asked for a discussion of the rationale for the proposed shutdown of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's (DEEP) consumer services unit and options the department is contemplating for continuing to offer the services the unit provides. As discussed below, the unit ultimately may not be shut down, although some of its staff may be reassigned within DEEP.
PA 11-80 created DEEP by merging the departments of Environmental Protection and Public Utility Control (DPUC). The consumer services unit, which had been located in DPUC, responds to questions and complaints from utility customers. The unit has received more than 25,000 calls so far this year. According to DEEP's website, the most common complaints the unit receives involve termination and reconnection of service, high bills, quality of service, service installation, line extensions, meter tests, incorrect rates or tariffs, payment arrangements, outages, deposits, and unauthorized switching of utility service from one provider to another. Historically, the unit has also prepared an annual scorecard that identifies the number of complaints per 100,000 customers the unit has received for each utility.
CONSUMER SERVICE UNIT PROPOSED SHUTDOWN
Each of the unit's members received notice of potential layoffs in late July as part of a layoff of 21 DPUC staff. Most of the layoffs are scheduled for September 1, 2011. The notices state that “this action has become necessary due to a lack of work stemming from the state's decision to no longer provide services in the Consumer Services Unit.” It states that the layoffs are needed for DEEP to become more efficient and to streamline state government.
According to the July 26th edition of the Hartford Courant, DEEP Communications Director Dennis Schain stated that “the decision to eliminate this program was made at DEEP as we looked for ways to achieve efficiencies and use resources in the most effective manner with the establishment of this new agency.” Schain notes that PA 11-80 gives DEEP a wide range of new responsibilities, which include administering several new energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.
According to Schain, the notices will be rescinded if the state employee unions ratify the agreement entered into between the unions and the state. However, an undetermined number of the staff in the unit may be reassigned to other duties in DEEP. Schain anticipates that the vote will be completed before the layoffs are scheduled to take effect.
In his Courant interview, Schain stated that:
We [i.e., DEEP] do recognize that some of what the group offers provides critical support to consumers. As a result, we are exploring options that would allow us to make changes to achieve efficiencies needed in these tough financial times while maintaining functions that are the most critical. One critical function, for instance, is resolving disputes between consumers who have exhausted all avenues of appeal with their utility company. There are times when this type of 'third party' is needed to help resolve issues between a utility company and a customer.
Among the options that are being considered are (1) using entities other than the unit to respond to phone enquiries and (2) encouraging consumers to contact their utility company first when they have a billing or other dispute.