Remember Red Herring from the short-lived “A Pup Called Scooby-Doo” cartoon series –  the red-headed bully that Freddie mistakenly blamed for all the mishap?

Red Herring has been recast in Governor Kasich’s first budget as a small consumer call center located in the scruffy consumer agency that is at times considered a thorn in the side of Ohio’s utilities – the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel

The thirty-five-year-old agency will sustain a 51 percent budget cut should Kasich’s budget proposal be passed, or $4.1 million, impacting the agency’s ability to intervene in the variety of utility legal issues across Ohio.

The Governor’s budget proposal indicates the cuts will streamline state government; the Governor’s recent pick to head the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has indicated their agency would be a happy party to Kasich’s efforts by absorbing the OCC consumer call center into the PUCO operations.

The PUCO call center has 33 employees who directly work for the PUCO.  The call center handled 56,115 cases on behalf of utility customers in 2010, saving them a total of $637,092.  In 2009, the call center worked 62,959 cases, saving customers $791,254. 

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel call center employees 10 professional responders. In 2010, 45,988 calls were routed through the OCC hotline or website to these case managers to provide hands-on response for utility customers.  Of those calls, the OCC investigators provided support to 14,112 customers; the rest were simple requests for information that did not need the involvement of an investigator or case worker.

The added expertise of the agency’s two compliance investigators allows the OCC to not only look at individual cases, but also track trends impacting consumers, according to Jeanine Migden-Ostrander, who holds the title “Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.”  Migden-Ostrander points to this an example of where the role of an advocate diverges from the role of a regulatory entity like PUCO. 

“The compliance investigator can look and see there have been 10 calls on a given topic,” Migden-Ostrander said.  “Then once we’ve identified a trend, we can contact the utility to discuss a solution to the trend we’re seeing.” 

But here’s the rub – eliminating the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel call center will not reduce taxpayers’ burden, or help the state cope with its projected $8 billion budget shortfall. [More on that later]

Both the PUCO and OCC will be before state legislators Wednesday to provide testimony on their respective budgets.  It’s likely that many of the questions and answers from legislators will deal with streamlining government and consolidating call centers.

But while the separate entities have merit, this isn’t the biggest policy issue.  The larger question is how both agencies – PUCO and OCC – will accomplish their respective missions of regulation and watchdog with a $25 million budget reduction.

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