CHARLESTON — A pandemic. A brutal winter driving up utility bills. An unemployment rate that remains slightly higher than it was before last spring’s COVID-19 shutdowns in a state that had the nation’s highest percentage of households receiving food stamps and second-lowest median household income before the coronavirus crisis.
These are the daily problems that make West Virginia consumers particularly vulnerable right now.
Enter Robert Williams, the new director of the state Public Service Commission’s Consumer Advocate Division.
“I think I know what I’m getting into,” Williams said.
Williams, 63, of Charleston, will take over leading the Consumer Advocate Division next week. Williams is currently an attorney for the House of Delegates Minority Caucus and previously served as an attorney for the House Judiciary Committee. But he’ll be drawing more as consumer advocate from his past experience as a law clerk, staff attorney, administrative law judge and deputy chief administrative law judge for the Public Service Commission in the 1980s and 1990s.
The West Virginia Legislature created the Consumer Advocate Division in 1981 to represent the interests of residential customers, and the division has fought to save money for consumers by fighting for them in rate proceedings and policy fights that threaten to inflate their utility bills.
“That’s really what the Consumer Advocate Division is, to make sure that they have a voice at the table,” Williams said.
Now the Consumer Advocate Division is staring down long-term impacts of the pandemic, and Williams knows that residential customers who got temporary utility payment relief are going to have to pay already if they haven’t already done so.
“(P)art of the problem is going to be finding resources that can help people pay those (utility) bills,” Williams said. “Utilities have been carrying some of those (costs). Sometimes there’s going to be cases filed, the utilities are going to be trying to recover some of those costs, and we’ve got to make sure that whatever’s done is done in a way that’s fair and equitable and not putting additional hardships and burdens on utility customers that they can’t bear.”
Williams’ predecessor, Jackie Roberts, said prior to stepping away from the position in December that she felt utility companies that serve West Virginians should have been doing more to provide direct relief for their residential customers hit hard by the pandemic, noting that many utility companies that serve West Virginia like Appalachian Power and FirstEnergy declined to contribute more this year to the Dollar Energy Fund, a Pittsburgh-based organization that provides utility assistance grants to those with limited incomes and counts several West Virginia-serving utilities among its partners.
Roberts left the Consumer Advocate Division last month to become a federal policy adviser for the Public Service Commission, a role in which she will focus on PJM, the regional transmission organization that coordinates wholesale electricity movement in all or parts of 13 states, including West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Certain utility rates have escalated quickly for West Virginian customers in recent years, according to the Consumer Advocate Division’s 2020 annual report, which notes an 18% increase in monthly utility costs for Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power customers in Charleston and Wheeling, respectively, from 2016 to 2020 and a 36% monthly utility cost hike for West Virginia American Water customers over the same span.
“I know it’s a thankless job because, a lot of times, at the end you’re talking about, ‘Well, your rates didn’t go up by X percent, they went up by something less,’ and nobody’s happy,” Williams said. “It’s kind of a tough job that way.”
“The insight and in-depth understanding he earned from his previous positions coupled with his familiarity with the Commission practices, processes, rules and statutory requirements will serve him well as he vigorously represents residential consumers in matters before the Commission,” Public Service Commission Chairperson Charlotte Lane said of Williams in an emailed statement. “Mr. Williams’ extensive community involvement illustrates his empathy with the everyday concerns and challenges of residential customers.”
The division has a separate budget and staff from the Public Service Commission and does not help individual customers with utility problems.
Williams is hoping to work with utilities and the Public Service Commission to help design policies that promote both utility and customer interests.
“If you can find ways to ... bring infrastructure to bear in West Virginia (to) support additional business expansion, then you can have some growth possibly that would reverse the trends we’ve had,” Williams said. “I think unfortunately what happened in the past, and part of that was while I was on the commission before, is you had a lot of businesses that had to shut down that were high-energy or high-utility users.”
Williams wants to help make sure that no one group of customers is bearing the brunt of covering utility investments.
“A lot of it is going to be studying to see what (the Consumer Advocate Division) has done and then build on that,” Williams said. “I don’t think there’s a need to immediately revamp everything.”
One of Williams’s first objectives, though, is watching whether and how Congress delivers another federal COVID-19 relief package to alleviate the suffering of West Virginians before March 14, when critical unemployment benefits expire.
“I’ll be watching that a lot to see what’s there and reacting to what we can do,” Williams said.