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History and Description

History

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is an agency of the State of North Carolina created by the General Assembly to regulate the rates and services of all public utilities in North Carolina. It is the oldest regulatory body in state government. The present Commission evolved from the Railroad Commission which was created in 1891 and given authority to regulate railroad, steam boat, and telegraph companies.

Today, the Commission regulates electric, telephone (including payphone service and shared tenant service), natural gas, water, wastewater, water resale, household goods transportation, busses, brokers, and ferryboats. To a limited degree, the Commission regulates electric membership corporations, small power producers, and electric merchant plants. The Commission is also responsible for administering programs in North Carolina to ensure the safety of natural gas pipelines. The Commission does not regulate telephone membership corporations, cable TV, satellite, commercial mobile radio service, cellular, pagers, or data and internet service providers.

Description

The Commission has seven members who serve six-year terms. Appointments are made by the Governor, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly by joint resolution. The Governor also designates a Chairman to serve a four-year term. The Chairman serves as the chief executive and administrative officer of the Commission and as a member of the Agency for Public Telecommunications Board and the Geographic Information Coordinating Council. The standards of judicial conduct provided for judges in Article 30 of Chapter 7A of the General Statutes apply to members of the Commission. Members of the Commission are prohibited by law from engaging in any other employment, business, profession, or vocation while in office.

The Commission is composed of three divisions, Legal & Administration, Operations, and Fiscal Management, in which it employs approximately 56 staff members.

The Public Staff of the Commission represents the interests of the using and consuming public in matters pending before the Commission. The Public Staff is an independent agency which is not subject to the supervision, direction, or control of the Commission. The Executive Director of the Public Staff is appointed by the Governor, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, by joint resolution, for a term of six years.

The Commission is, by law, an administrative board or agency of the General Assembly created for the principal purpose of carrying out the administration and enforcement of the Public Utilities Act. The Commission is accountable to the General Assembly and is subject to legislative oversight by the Joint Legislative Utility Review Committee. The Commission is authorized to promulgate rules and regulations and to fix utility rates pursuant to Chapter 62. In carrying out its purpose, the Commission is required by law to perform its duties and responsibilities in securing for the people of the state an efficient and economic system of public utilities in the same manner as commissions and administrative boards generally. For the purpose of conducting hearings, making decisions, issuing orders, and informal investigations where a record is made of testimony under oath, the Commission is deemed to exercise functions judicial in nature and has all the powers and jurisdiction of a court of general jurisdiction as to all subjects over which it has jurisdiction by law.

The Commission is required by law to make and publish annual reports to the Governor regarding its activities, including copies of general orders and regulations, comparative statistical data on the operation of various public utilities in the state, comparisons of rates in North Carolina with rates elsewhere, a review of significant developments in the fields of law, economics and planning, a report of pending matters before the Commission, and a digest of the principal decisions of the Commission and the North Carolina courts affecting public utilities. The Commission is also required to publish in a separate volume each year its final decisions made on the merits in formal proceedings before the Commission, including significant procedural orders and decisions.

Hearings

The Commissioners and members of the Commission staff designated and assigned to serve as Hearing Examiners have full power to administer oaths and to hear and take evidence. The Commission renders its decisions upon questions of law and fact in the same manner as a court of record. A majority of the Commissioners constitutes a quorum, and any order or decision of a majority of Commissioners constitutes the order or decision of the Commission. The Commission has the same power to compel the attendance of witnesses, require the examination of persons and parties, compel the production of books and papers, and punish for contempt, as by law is conferred upon the superior courts.

The Commission and its staff are also prohibited by law from engaging in ex parte communications with parties to contested cases pertaining to the merits of the proceedings.

The full seven-member Commission may be designated by the Chairman to hear cases involving matters of significant policy and/or substantial importance. Generally, however, the Commissioners sit in panels of three. For the purpose of conducting hearings, the Chairman assigns Hearing Commissioners or Hearing Examiners and designates the presiding officer. During calendar year 2009, there were a total of 1,520 formal proceedings instituted before the Commission and a total of  56 hearings in contested cases. The Commission's Chief Clerk's office received 10,036 filings and issued  2,166 orders in 2009. When acting as a court of record, the Commission applies the rules of evidence applicable in civil actions in the superior court, insofar as practicable. Decisions must be supported by competent material and substantial evidence upon consideration of the whole record. Final orders or decisions entered by the Utilities Commission in general rate cases may be appealed directly to the North Carolina Supreme Court. All other appeals must first proceed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

The Commission publishes weekly and monthly calendars of its proceedings designed to provide public notice of all hearings and public meetings being conducted. These hearings and meetings are open to the public.

Rates

As stated earlier, the Commission's authority to regulate public utilities throughout the state is set forth in Chapter 62 of the North Carolina General Statutes, the Public Utilities Act. This Act is a comprehensive body of law which sets out in great detail the jurisdiction of the Commission over the public utilities and the procedures the Commission must follow in regulating these utilities with respect to rates and services.

The law defining the Commission's responsibilities is specific in the sense the utility companies must be fairly remunerated for services rendered, but broad enough to provide latitude for the Commission to go beyond rate setting and requiring adequate service into such matters as establishing a plan for the construction of new generation facilities, reviewing management efficiencies, requiring least cost planning by electric utilities, etc.

The purpose of regulation of public utilities is to protect the interest of the public to the end that adequate service may be provided at reasonable rates. In fixing such rates, the Commission must be fair and reasonable to both public utilities and their customers.

With respect to the fixing of rates for public utilities, the Commission is required by law to conduct hearings in general rate cases and other rate making proceedings which, in the case of the larger utilities such as the electric, telephone, and natural gas companies, may be lengthy and complex and take up to several weeks to complete. Participation in these hearings includes the utility, the Public Staff, and the Attorney General, as well as other parties who have an interest in being assured that the rates and charges of the utility are just and reasonable. General rate cases may be heard by the full Commission of seven members or by a panel of three Commissioners. The hearings are held in Raleigh and are also held throughout the state in the service areas of the utilities to give the customers an opportunity to testify.

The Commission frequently appears before federal and state courts and agencies, particularly the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in natural gas matters and state superior courts in water/wastewater matters, to secure just and reasonable rates and service for the users of public utility service in this state.

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