The Star-Ledger

Little-Known State Government Office Saves New Jerseyans From Higher Utility Rates

The Star-Ledger — Monday, September 19, 2011

By Eliot Caroom / The Star-Ledger

Electricity rates in New Jersey are among the highest in the nation, but they'd be even higher if it weren't for Stefanie Brand.

Brand is the head of the Division of Rate Counsel, a little-known office of state government that fights rate increase requests when they come before the Board of Public Utilities, typically cutting them by about 40 percent through research, opposition before the BPU and negotiation, according to Brand.

"Say a utility comes in and they want an increase in their rates," Brand explained. "We are the adversary, the institutional adversary, and we put on the case on the other side for why they shouldn't get that rate increase, and then the BPU makes the decision between them."

In a recent PSE&G case, that meant a rate increase was knocked down to $100 million from more than $200 million, Brand said.

That case and others have impressed other public advocates like Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action.

"We think she has represented New Jersey consumers well," Salowe-Kaye said. "She does see both sides, but she's there to represent the ratepayers."

Brand argues against all kinds of rate increases: electric, water, gas and cable.

Several decades of law led here for the Englewood Cliffs native, including a clerkship for Associate Justice Gary Stein of the New Jersey Supreme Court and other jobs in government.

Brand was appointed head of the Division of Rate Counsel under the Corzine administration, when it was a part of the Department of the Public Advocate, and kept her job even after Gov. Chris Christie eliminated most of the department and got rid of her boss, Public Advocate Ronald Chen.

"Stefanie has successfully straddled two administrations," Chen said. "She certainly was very highly regarded in the administration I served in, and it's my understanding she is equally highly regarded in Gov. Christie's administration. It's sometimes difficult to describe to the layperson the importance of the work. The amount of money she's saved ratepayers is astonishing."

Fellow Christie administration officials also have praise for her.

"She's there to scrutinize everything we do for the benefit of the ratepayers, and she does a great job," said BPU President Lee Solomon. "When you're in a position like that, there's a tendency to be close-minded or narrowly focused, but she looks at the big picture and what is ultimately best for ratepayers."

The job isn't just arguing before the BPU; Brand also fights shoulder-to-shoulder with Solomon on some policy matters, including an ongoing spat between the state, federal regulators and the power industry over three proposed natural gas plants that would get price guarantees from a state law called LCAPP.

State officials say the new plants would cut congestion costs in the state, but the power industry argues against a state price guarantee that would unfairly help the new plants win an interstate auction of power capacity payments.

In that fight, Brand is trying to influence a complex, opaque organization that oversees power markets in the United States — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

It's a relatively new focus for her office, which once focused more on internal state policy matters.

"For a long time, we weren't doing that much down at FERC and we'd argue tooth and nail with a company in state over a project that was $1 million, and here there was $1 billion being decided at FERC, and we were sending in five pages of comments," Brand said. "I'm actually impressed at the (Christie administration's) willingness to dig in and try to tackle this."

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