Friday, June 1, 2012
San Diegans await a decision by state regulators on whether power customers, instead of SDG&E shareholders, will have to pay for wildfires costs.
The Kearny Mesa auditorium was filled to capacity on the afternoon of April 5. Hundreds had gathered to oppose SDG&E’s request to bill customers for the 2007 fire expenses that insurance companies won’t cover. Outrage permeated the room.
Many customers like Jim Thomas said it was unjust for the company to ask for ratepayer reimbursement when state investigators found that the utility’s lines started the fires because SDG&E had not properly designed, built or maintained its equipment.
”How many of you folks have automobile insurance?” he asked. “ I would assume if you cause a traffic accident and you damage property, who is responsible for the costs? You are."
Customers also have expressed frustration about whether the California Public Utilities Commission is mindful of ratepayers’ interests. Commissioners have twice approved rate increases in the tens of millions of dollars for SDG&E customers to cover the company’s higher wildfire liability insurance costs. Customers say they want politicians to show leadership and advocate on their behalf to convince regulators not to let SDG&E pass along the wildfire costs to them.
“I tell you, if I was mayor this would not be happening,” said Bob Filner, the San Diego mayoral candidate and Democratic congressman. “They should not be allowed to shift the costs of their wrong decisions, their liability, to the ratepayers.”
Filner is the only mayoral candidate who has not received money from SDG&E, its parent company Sempra, or their employees.
“They know they can’t control me,” he said. “They know that I’m the one that’s going to break the power of special interests’ stranglehold on city hall. And they want to defeat me because I stand up to them”
But mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher, an Independent, said the fact that SDG&E and Sempra employees have contributed to his campaign and that he has been endorsed by Sempra President Mark Snell are irrelevant to his position.
“I’ve got a long track record of looking at the issues and making the decision that’s in the best interests of our city,” Fletcher said. “Anyone who supports me is getting an investment in good government. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Assemblyman Fletcher is opposed ordering ratepayers to reimburse SDG&E for the uninsured wildfire costs.
“I don’t think taxpayers ought to be put on the hook for a business that had something go wrong,” he said. “There’s no other industry in which you would see that and it doesn’t seem to be appropriate here.”
The city of San Diego sued SDG&E for damages to city property and reimbursement for firefighting costs from the '07 wildfires. That case is in mediation. The city is also an interested party in SDG&E’s attempt to charge customers for wildfire costs. But City Attorney Jan Goldsmith refused to state what the city’s position is on the utility's proposal to charge customers.
Candidate Carl DeMaio would not talk about SDG&E’s pitch to regulators.
DeMaio represents Rancho Bernardo which lost more homes in the '07 fires than any other community in the county. In a statement, Demaio said he believes SDG&E, and not the taxpayers, should be held accountable for the utility’s liability from the 2007 fires.
San Diego District County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has accepted the most campaign contributions from SDG&E and Sempra representatives. Of the four mayoral candidates, she was the only one who hedged on whether ratepayers should pay for the '07 fire costs instead of shareholders.
“I think it’s in litigation,” she said. “My default would generally be toward the consumer. But I think the court’s got to rule on that and we’ll see where that goes.”
But the court is not ruling on the issue. It is up to the California Public Utilities Commission.
When Dumanis was asked what she thought of SDG&E request to bill customers for all future uninsured wildfire costs even if the company is found to be negligent, she said: “Boy, I’d have to think about that."
"One of the things we need to remember is that the public utilities are the ones that make those decisions and I think they will look at it with pretty strict scrutiny.”
Kevin Crowe of Investigative Newsource compiled the campaign contribution numbers for this story.