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Published: 3/20/2011

Consumers’ Counsel faces fund slash in Kasich budget plan

BY DAN GEARINO
COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Janine Migden-Ostrander, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, heads the office that advocates on consumers’ behalf on issues involving the state’s utilities. Janine Migden-Ostrander, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, heads the office that advocates on consumers’ behalf on issues involving the state’s utilities.
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COLUMUS — Ohio’s consumer advocate for utility issues would lose more than half of its budget under Gov. John Kasich’s spending plan, a cut that the agency says would lead to higher utility bills.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, headed by Janine Midgen-Ostrander, would get $4.1 a year million under Mr. Kasich’s proposal, down from the current $8.5 million.

The budget pays for about 75 employees, including a team of lawyers who represent consumers before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio; a call center that takes questions and complaints from customers; and a public-outreach office that publicizes ways that customers can reduce their energy bills.

“We know there is a spirit of budget cutting and fiscal reform, but few if any people here expected this kind of a cut,” said Marty Berkowitz, a spokesman for the agency. “We really feel it does damage to the citizens and the consumers, because we are their advocate.”

Unlike other state agencies, the Office of the Consumers’ Counsel is funded through a fee in utility bills.

This means that the budget cut would have no effect on the state’s general fund.

If the saving is passed on to utility customers, the difference would be less than $1 a customer per year, Mr. Berkowitz said.

“I think it would be fair to say that the cost to customers by not having us there would be more,” he said.

Several of the office’s functions, such as the call center, also exist within the utilities commission, leading to criticism that the state duplicates some services.

The difference, Mr. Berkowitz said, is that the Consumers’ Counsel exclusively works on behalf of consumers but the utilities commission serves multiple interests.

Mr. Kasich’s office has not yet given the Consumers’ Counsel any explanation for the cut.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel was started in 1976 by the Ohio General Assembly.

The initial purpose was to represent consumers when utilities proposed rate increases.

Because of this, the agency has often taken an adversarial role against utilities such as American Electric Power and Columbus Gas of Ohio, arguing for lower rates and putting up legal roadblocks.

Read more of this story at www.dispatch.com.



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