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Tasco seems unfazed by PUC wrath

Marian B. Tasco, the veteran city councilwoman who has led opposition to Mayor Nutter's proposed sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works, is unfazed that there may be hell to pay if PGW's $1.86 billion privatization fails.

Councilwoman Marian Tasco
Councilwoman Marian TascoRead more

Marian B. Tasco, the veteran city councilwoman who has led opposition to Mayor Nutter's proposed sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works, is unfazed that there may be hell to pay if PGW's $1.86 billion privatization fails.

"The people who influence me are the 150,000 who live in my district, who say we should keep our utility," Tasco, the Ninth District councilwoman, said Tuesday after a meeting of the Philadelphia Gas Commission, the city body she chairs.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission signaled Friday that there might be serious repercussions if City Council did not give a fair hearing to the proposed $1.86 billion sale to UIL Holdings Corp. Some PUC members suggested the state could force the city to give up the $18 million annual fee it has been getting from PGW.

One commissioner also suggested the legislature should consider stripping Council and the Gas Commission from oversight of PGW. "If they can't act responsibly, then their role should be eliminated," said James H. Cawley.

Tasco, who was first elected in 1987, seemed unbothered by the PUC's wrath. She said it was inconceivable that the state could remove Council from overseeing an asset the city owns.

"I don't know how they'd do that," she said. "We are a city authority. It will end up in court. There'd be a long legal battle over this."

The role of the Gas Commission, a key player in the jurisdictional-control dispute between state and city, is not well understood outside a small circle who closely follow the municipal utility.

The commission, which meets monthly, has five members: Two Council members - Tasco and Curtis Jones Jr. - plus City Controller Alan Butkovitz and two mayoral appointees.

Only the mayoral appointees, Carmen E. Adames, an accountant and tax adviser, and Royal E. Brown, an Independence Blue Cross executive, are compensated, $75 for each day they do Gas Commission work.

The commission once regulated all aspects of PGW. But the state legislature directed the PUC to assume jurisdiction in 2000 and took over rate-making, safety oversight, and consumer complaints.

The Gas Commission still approves PGW's operating and capital budgets, which gives it substantial control.

David W. Seltzer, chairman of the nonprofit panel of mayoral appointees that acts as PGW's unpaid corporate board, said the additional layers of city oversight create an onerous burden that no other utility must endure.

"These duplicate and in some cases triplicate approvals are a needless expenditure of time and resources," Seltzer testified last week before Council. He said the Gas Commission budget reviews have "morphed into a full, adjudicated, regulatory-type hearing."

But the commission, whose $955,000 budget is paid by PGW, not the city treasury, says it has saved gas customers far more than its oversight has cost.

The commission has cut PGW's operating budget $56 million over 12 years, and lopped $81 million from its capital budget, said Janet Parrish, a lawyer who is the commission's executive director.

"I don't have any qualms and I don't think the commissioners have any qualms about the contributions it has made over that time," she said.

The commission has five employees. Its budget includes $367,000 in purchased services, the largest of which is $195,000 to Community Legal Services, which acts as the public advocate.

Tasco complained that some PUC members have already expressed support for the UIL deal, though they would eventually have to rule on it.

"How can they be objective when they are part of the process?" she said.

Nutter, who says the PGW sale would generate tremendous financial benefits for the city, says nobody has made a solid case for retaining the utility. But Tasco turns that question around.

"Why are we in the business?" she said. "Because we've been in the business a long time, and we're pretty good at it."

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