AARP Survey Shows Mistrust Of State Ratepayer Advocates

Jul 24, 2015

A new survey from the AARP shows major gaps in public knowledge about the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline to Addison County. It also raises questions about whether the public feels the state department tasked with representing ratepayers has met those obligations.

The AARP survey, conducted by a company called Precision Opinion from May 30 to June 9 of this year, was designed “to gauge the opinions of Vermont registered voters age 18 and older about the pipeline project and their opinions on utilities,” according to the AARP summary.

The results of the survey show that half of the 800 responding voters were “not at all familiar” or “not too familiar” with the Vermont Gas pipeline project, and more than one third don’t know how the pipeline will be paid for.

“Most [voters surveyed] incorrectly think company profits are being used, at least in part, to fund the project. Only 7 percent of respondents expect the project would be funded by consumer rates alone,” the AARP summary said.

Other questions in the survey centered on voters’ feelings about the Department of Public Service, which represents ratepayers before the Public Service Board, which regulates utilities.

Less than half of Vermonters surveyed felt like the department was doing that job, according to AARP.

The survey found that 48 percent of Vermonters agree the department is “ensuring stronger regulations are in place so utility companies are fair to customers,” and just 36 percent believe the department is “ensuring cost estimates submitted by the utilities are independently reviewed.” Just 40 and 46 percent of Vermonters agreed that the department is making sure the public gets straight answers from utilities and ensuring utilities are held accountable for cost overruns passed to customers, respectively.

Finally, just 40 percent of respondents said the department is “representing consumer interests when rates are proposed,” according to the survey.

Specific to the Vermont Gas pipeline, 51 percent of Vermonters “strongly” or “somewhat” oppose the department’s continuing support of the project after the company’s cost estimates grew dramatically last year, according to the survey.

Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia said Friday that the survey results don't support the assertion that the majority of Vermonters oppose the department's continued support.

“Even if you go beyond the self-serving nature of the questions that were asked of Vermonters," he said, "when you get 51 percent saying they don’t agree with the decision to move forward and there’s a margin of error of 3.5 percent, how is is that you can interpret that to be a majority of Vermonters? Statistics do not allow you to do that. You can’t make any conclusions about that in terms of the majority.”

Recchia told the Burlington Free Press, which received the survey results Thursday, that AARP had not told him about the survey in a conversation earlier in the week.

“Giving you guys [the Free Press] the survey and then not even engaging us, I don’t even know what to say about that,” Recchia said, as quoted by the Free Press. “I would never do that to anybody.”

Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall said in an interview Friday that he thinks the regulatory system is working in this case, and the company is being held accountable.

“I can’t imagine a process that is more open and transparent than the one that we have had,” he said.

Critics have said company officials should have told regulators that cost increases were coming as soon as that was known. Instead the company waited months to inform regulators. The Department of Public Service also knew of the coming increases, but Recchia has said it’s the company’s job, not his department’s, to keep regulators informed about the project. That silence drew fire from critics.

Rendall said Friday that the results of the survey aren't representative of what the company is hearing from Vermonters.

"The AARP survey, at least as it's been reported, does not in our view reflect the views of Vermonters," he said. "People who have access to natural gas sign up for our service in high numbers because we offer a cleaner and more affordable home heating choice."

Rich Clark, the director of the Castleton Polling Institute, reviewed the survey questions provided by AARP and response information and said he found two areas in which the poll varied from a truly representative sample.

“The only red flags that I see is the party affiliation frequencies and homeownership,” Clark said in an email. “They actually have more respondents identified as Republican than Democrat (23% to 22% respectively).  The bigger discrepancy is in homeownership; they only have 32% saying that they are a homeowner, which is drastically too low (VT’s homeownership rate is 71%). And we do find a difference between homeowners and renters on many policy issues.”

Update 9:27 p.m. This story was updated to include new comments from Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia.