Judge OKs order that raises city power bills

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ATLANTA --- The Public Service Commission did not act improperly when it issued an order that will cause electric bills for Georgia Power customers living in cities to jump by as much as $55 million, a judge ruled Thursday.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Manis said the PSC had enough evidence to back up the decision it issued earlier this year.

The decision would force city-dwelling customers to shoulder more of the burden for franchise fees paid to cities by Georgia Power; bills will decrease for customers in unincorporated areas.

The disagreement centers on how Georgia Power pays franchise fees for using the right-of-way property owned by cities in order to run power lines. The cost of the fees is passed on to ratepayers.

Georgia Power pays up to 4 percent of the amount it makes from selling electricity in cities in exchange for using the land.

Through the agreements, cities receive $110 million a year from the fees, which are not necessarily earmarked for maintaining the rights of way but instead go into their general budgets.

THE PSC RULING phased out part of those charges so that by 2009, only 2 percent of the fees would come out of everyone's bill while the other 2 percent would be borne solely by customers living in cities. That drew a challenge from the Georgia Municipal Association and a group of cities, including Augusta, Hinesville and Rome.

"Taken as a whole, there was ample evidence for them to make a judgment call on the 2 percent reduction (from county residents' payments)," Judge Manis said after a brief hearing during which both sides restated their arguments.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the cities would appeal.

NEWTON GALLOWAY, an attorney who represents the municipal association, said the PSC relied too heavily on an expert whose testimony in favor of a reduction to 2 percent was "speculative."

"We can't just pick a number out of thin air," he said.

But Alex Sponseller, an assistant attorney general representing the PSC, said the specific number didn't have to be backed up. Instead, commissioners heard plenty of reasons for lowering the rate, and did so. It might be different, he said, if the PSC had instead decided to increase the share of the franchise fees paid by county residents.

"That would clearly be arbitrary, but that's obviously not what happened," he said.

Judge Manis, who had already heard arguments once but wanted a chance to do so again after reading the PSC's transcripts for the first time, sounded skeptical of Mr. Galloway's arguments almost from the beginning of the hearing.

"Isn't your complaint (that) you need a new PSC to vote?" she asked.

Judge Manis asked the attorney general's office to draft a proposed order for her to sign by the end of the month.


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