EVER SO SLOWLY but surely, the District agency with power over your utility bills is breaking records as one of the most inefficient regulatory bodies in the region, and even beyond. By taking a scandalously long time to gather facts and reach decisions on utility rates, the city's Public Service Commission is doing no one any favors; these delays aren't protecting consumers from unfair rate increases -- they are prolonging the agony. They also are causing unfair, serious financial damage to the utility companies.

Just about any independent financial study one can find of the PSC points up its abysmal record. Comparisons of rate-case processing times in the District, Maryland and Virginia, for cases involving the same utilities, speak for themselves: one consultants' report showed the average time in telephone rate cases, from application to final order: Maryland, 171 days; Virginia, 265 days; and -- stand by -- the District, 577 days. Gas and electric cases also have taken from 300 to 400 days apiece in the District. The national average in 1977 was 8.7 months -- while the District's average from 1975 to 1978 was 15.5 months.

Little wonder that stockholder publications are not all that bullish on the local utilities. The Washington Gas Light Co. says it would be insolvent if it had to depend on its current operations in the city alone. In a petition to the D.C. Court of Appeals seeking financial relief, the company says that "since WGL is losing money in the District of Columbia, earnings from the shareholders on Maryland and Virginia operations must be used to subsidize service in the District. This is not fair or legal."

Whatever the proper rates turn out to be in these utility cases, decisions should be made in a reasonable amont of time. The utility companies as well as their customers deserve to know when to expect rulings -- no matter whom those decisions turn out to please. One useful step would be to establish maximum processing times -- deadlines -- along with measures that would allow a utility to put rates into effect if a commission hasn't ruled within a certain period.