By Keila Szpaller (Daily Montanan)August 25, 2021
(Daily Montanan) If you don’t pay your fees, the Montana Public Service Commission can send you to collections.
Earlier this year, legislative auditors called on the regulatory agency to strengthen its financial controls to prevent unchecked travel, underreported income and expenses and uncollected debts. At a Legislative Audit Committee hearing in June, PSC Chairman James Brown said he agreed with the findings and said staff were already strengthening operations.
However, Brown also noted that in some cases the PSC lacks an enforcement hammer, an issue that has led to unpaid fees by companies and law firms filing claims requiring action.
Now a method application is underway. In a phone call Tuesday, PSC staff attorney Lucas Hamilton said the commission plans to appeal to the Department of Revenue for help collecting those debts.
Specifically, Hamilton said that last week the commission asked staff to draft a policy and corresponding draft rule on how the agency handles debt in order to use debt collection services from the Department of Income. He said the DOR provides the service, but agencies must first put policies in place on how they handle debt.
“Until we have these policies in place, the Department of Revenue would not be available to us, but we have a way to make it happen,” Hamilton said.
At a PSC meeting last week, Commissioner Randy Pinocci proposed setting penalties for entities that don’t pay the money they owe. In a phone call, he said he wanted entities that didn’t pay to be responsible for the interest as well as the attorney’s fees needed to collect the money, and he said the PSC shouldn’t have to examine their request if they are not. t paying.
Hamilton said the motion was withdrawn so staff could work on related policies, and he noted that staff would also consider Pinocci’s idea regarding penalties. Pinocci said he was a man of action, so he intends to keep pushing things forward, and he said he was surprised the former commissioners didn’t address the issue.
“It’s funny how the Italians seem to do very well in bill collection,” Pinocci said on Tuesday. “When the Italians run a casino, everyone pays. You can quote that.
This summer, even the threat that the PSC would face unpaid bills resulted in some payments, Hamilton said. He said the accountant’s most recent report counted $8,927 in payments received since the news broke, and the amount currently owed is $7,549.
“Updating most of these accounts has been substantial progress,” Hamilton said.
In general, he said the debt came from a mix of companies, including small transportation companies, a telecommunications company (which may have gone bankrupt) and small power producers. Often, Hamilton said the dispute is over the cost of posting a public notice, which can range from $150 to $200 at the low end to $650 to $700 at the high end if a notice to statewide is required. Sometimes he said companies don’t pay because there’s a debate about whether the company or its law firm is liable.
He anticipates that staff will have a proposal for commissioners to consider by mid-September. Generally, he said the PSC will pursue whatever fixes it can make to the policy, and if it identifies any statutory changes that would help manage the books, it will consider proposing them in the future.
Pinocci said he has other ideas he plans to come up with as well. For example, he said that if a Commissioner travels without having the trip approved, as has happened with Commissioner Brad Johnson in the past, that Commissioner will pay for the trip out of his own pocket.
“Private industry has these wonderful ideas that the state needs to start implementing,” Pinocci said.