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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Utility Regulators Spar Over Transparency Of Electric Bill Increases

NorthWestern Energy says Montana customers are being targeted by scammers.
NorthWestern Energy
NorthWestern Energy says Montana customers are being targeted by scammers.

Utility Regulators Spar Over Transparency Of Electric Bill IncreasesState utility regulators are nearing the end of a massive review of what Northwestern Energy charges its customers and what the company makes in profit. Several regulators this week are arguing over how the public was notified that they’ll likely see an increase in their electric bills.

The five-member Montana Public Service Commission voted unanimously at the end of October to approve a 1.23 percent increase to what Northwestern Energy can charge customers for electricity. The increase amounts to $6.5 million in revenue for the company.

The PSC vote was a milestone in the first broad review of Northwestern’s electric rates in 10 years. A final order in the rate case is expected later this year.

PSC’s communications director, who was out of the office at the time of the vote, sent a press release two days after the Oct. 30 work session with a comment from Chairman Brad Johnson.

It did not mention the commissioners’ approval on the rate increase. Instead, it outlined the process for approving the final rate case order later this year.

Southwest Montana commissioner Roger Koopman says news of the rate hike vote should have been released more publicly and with more input from the other commissioners.

In a personal press release, Koopman accused Chairman Johnson of spreading false information. He said the dynamic within the Public Service Commission, currently all Republicans, is highly political.

"It’s something I’ve really seen for seven years on the commission, but it’s getting progressively worse," Koopman said. 

PSC Communications director Drew Zinecker called it a “misunderstanding and a matter of perspective.” 

PSC chairman Johnson, a commissioner for a section of northwest Montana, called a press meeting Wednesday morning to tell his side of the story. He says the PSC’s vote to approve the increase in electric rates was a small step in the much larger review of Northwestern Energy’s finances.

“I didn’t give it any thought. I thought we had addressed it in a way that was appropriate at the time,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said PSC was transparent.There does not appear to be a requirement for how soon staff must upload documents, according to PSC attorney Justin Kraske.

Kraske says the commission gave due notice of meetings as regulations require, but that’s the extent of legal requirement.

“There’s no specific besides the general requirements that a notice has to be reasonable to alert the public to discussion and decisions we have. There’s no specific guidance on that,” Kraske said. 

A final order on Northwestern Energy’s rate case is expected by December 26. Still to be decided in that case is whether or not the PSC will approve the company’s request for a new fee on homeowners generating electricity through rooftop solar.

Copyright 2019 Yellowstone Public Radio

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
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