PSC proposes debt collection, plus interest

Commissioner Pinocci: ‘When Italians manage a casino, everybody pays’

By: - August 24, 2021 7:15 pm

Montana Public Service Commission (via PSC Twitter account).

If you don’t pay your fees, the Montana Public Service Commission may send you to collections.

Earlier this year, legislative auditors told the regulatory agency to shore up its financial controls to avoid unchecked travel, underreported revenue and expenses, and uncollected debt. At a Legislative Audit Committee hearing in June, PSC Chair James Brown said he agreed with the findings and said staff already were shoring up operations.

However, Brown also noted that in some cases, the PSC had no enforcement hammer, a problem that led to unpaid fees by companies and law firms that file applications that require action.

Now, one method enforcement is in the works. In a phone call Tuesday, PSC staff attorney Lucas Hamilton said the commission plans to tap the Department of Revenue for help collecting those debts.

Specifically, Hamilton said the commission last week directed staff to write a policy and corresponding draft rule for how the agency handles debt in order to use the debt collection services of the Department of Revenue. He said the DOR provides the service, but agencies first have to have policies in place for how they handle debt.

“Until we have those policies in place, the Department of Revenue would not be available to us, but there is an avenue for us to get there,” Hamilton said.

At a PSC meeting last week, Commissioner Randy Pinocci made a bid to set penalties for entities that aren’t paying the money they owe. In a phone call, he said he wants entities that don’t pay to be responsible for interest as well as the attorneys’ fees needed to collect the money, and he said the PSC shouldn’t have to consider their application if they aren’t paying.

Hamilton said that motion was withdrawn so staff could work on the related policies, and he noted staff also will look at Pinocci’s idea for penalties. Pinocci said he’s a man of action so he intends to keep the ball rolling, and he said he was surprised former commissioners hadn’t addressed the issue.

“It’s funny how Italians seem to work really good at bill collecting,” Pinocci said Tuesday. “When Italians manage a casino, everybody pays. You can quote that.”

This summer, even the threat the PSC was going to deal with unpaid bills resulted in some payments, Hamilton said. He said the most recent report from the bookkeeper counted $8,927 in payments received since the news came to light, and the amount currently owed is $7,549.

“It has been substantial progress to getting most of these accounts current,” Hamilton said.

Generally, he said the debt is from a mix of companies, including small transportation companies, a telecommunications business (which may have gone belly up), and small power producers. Often, Hamilton said the dispute is over the cost of publishing public notice, which can run from $150 to $200 on the lower end to $650 to $700 on the higher end if statewide notice is required. Sometimes, he said companies don’t pay because there’s an argument about whether the company or its law firm is responsible.

He anticipates staff will have a proposal for commissioners to consider by the middle of September. Generally, he said the PSC will pursue the fixes it can make in policy, and if it identifies statutory changes that would help manage the books, it will consider bringing them forward in the future.

Pinocci said he has other ideas he plans to bring up as well. For example, he said if a commissioner travels without getting the trip approved, as happened with Commissioner Brad Johnson in the past, that commissioner will pay for the trip out of pocket.

“Private industry has these wonderful ideas that the state needs to start implementing,” Pinocci said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.