New York’s Utilities Are Waging War On New York’s Ratepayers…

… and there’s nary a consumer voice offering an objection, according to Albany-based lobbyist, William Ferris.

Ferris, who works for AARP, has spearheaded a campaign to give a voice to those who struggle to pay increasingly heavyweight utility bills.

To do that he’s supporting a bill in the New York State Legislature that would finally guarantee a place for ratepayers at the regulatory table and while AARP is the signature organization for seniors, it’s a fight they’ve taken on for all ratepayers in the state. It’s a modern twist on the old battle cry of the American colonists – “no taxation without representation-” but in this version the AARP has called for representation via a public advocate’s office – independent and insulated from political pressure – that can ensure transparency and accountability whenever the utilities (all seven of them) belly up to the regulatory bar looking for rubber stamp approval for rate hikes.

New York State is only one of ten states – and by far, the largest – that lacks this sort of consumer protection.

Ferris and the AARP have thrown their support behind a bill, sponsored by Bronx Assemblyman, Jeffrey Dinowitz, that would create a Utility Consumer Advocate (“UCA”) and for the last four years it passed muster in the State Assembly only to stall, sputter and die in the State Senate. Even a recommendation by Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparedness, calling for “a robust, permanent, professional consumer advocate office to represent ratepayers,” did little to convince/sway those in the State Senate.

You can attribute much of that to the lobbying efforts of trade groups like the Energy Coalition, New York, who think things are just hunky-dory, no need to entertain change, and react like inflamed bulls charging a toreador’s red cape whenever the issue of a UCA is raised. The Business Council of the State of New York – another group opposing the UCA – claims that the new law “will immediately increase the cost of energy in the State for all consumers.” Furthermore, the industry argument goes, why establish another government office that will further pick the taxpayer’s pockets?

The AARP takes umbrage with this contention laying out its case in a January, 2014, aptly titled report, David v Goliath, Why Consumers are losing New York’s utility game. There are loads of states, like Connecticut and Pennsylvania, that have strong consumer utility advocates and their involvement, according to the report, has saved rate payers money in amounts far exceeding the cost incurred in running these offices.

But here’s the real kicker (if you can believe it): the cost of lobbying for rate increases by the utilities – lawyers and other assorted experts – is passed on to the consumer to the tune of $10 million dollars a year!

Pure gall, to put it mildly, and it really galls AARP’s New York spokesperson, Erik Kriss.

We think if ratepayers pay for utility companies’ advocacy costs, the ratepayers should have their own, independent, advocate. Fair is fair!

Con-Ed has recently filed for another increase that would boost electric rates by 9.5% and natural gas rates by 13.4%, making it more difficult to pay bills for those already struggling to stay afloat and, for seniors, according to the AARP, there’s the added dilemma: do I pay the electric bill or do I pay for needed medication?

Seniors, seeking to take their medicine and avoid an early exit from this mortal coil may, in fact, find themselves among the 277,000 New York State residents who had their gas and electricity terminated for non-payment during the first eleven months of 2014, according to the latest Public Service Commission statistics.

Without the intervention of an independent UCA — one devoted to wholly looking out for the ratepayer’s interests — many more may find themselves living a Little House on the Prairie existence.

I did reach out to Con-Ed’s spokesperson, Michael Clendenin, for comment but received no response.

However, James Denn, the spokesperson for the Public Service Commission, did offer his agency’s perspective on the issue of a public advocate:

A year or so ago, the Department created a Consumer Advocate position to strengthen the voice of the consumer for all activities overseen by the Commission. The Consumer Advocate ensures that regulated energy, telecommunications and water utilities, as well as third-party energy providers and energy efficiency programs and clean energy initiatives, adhere to best practices in regards to the services provided to customers, with a particular focus on low-income consumers.

I’ve got some skin in this game having gone head to head with Con Ed over billing issues in recent months and I’ve complained to the Public Service Commission and there’s been nothing in the responses that indicate any input from the Public Service’s version of a consumer advocate.

I wish the AARP all the best in its campaign to bring a dose of regulatory sanity to an out-of-control-situation and as a bonafide member of their senior demographic, intend to immediately re-up my lapsed membership.

Joel Sucher is a producer/director with Pacific Street Films, writing on a variety of subjects for American Banker, In These Times and Huffington Post.

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