Amidst concerns over the rise of Con Edison utility bills, New York State Senator Leroy Comrie and the Public Utility Law Project, known as PULP, organized a virtual training session on Feb. 17 to educate low-income New Yorkers on what resources are available when it comes to energy consumption.
On Feb. 14, PULP and the American Association of Retired Persons wrote a joint letter to the Hochul Administration requesting that $1.25 billion be taken from the $12.5 billion federal American Rescue Plan funds and allocated to low-income energy consumers. Electricity bills for many businesses and individuals have increased by as much as four-fold since January. Allan Drury, a spokesman for Consolidated Edison Inc., said the increases result from higher supply costs amid a cold winter. PULP said ConEd could have done more to prepare their customers.
In a Zoom meeting that is to be the first of a weekly series, PULP leaders and members of Sen. Comrie’s office discussed how customers can avoid electric service termination, file a complaint with the Department of Public Services or send a medical certification to prevent a shutoff. They also spoke about programs such as the Home Energy Assistance Program, which assists with heating costs, and told attendees who were eligible for small grants.
“My level payment bill went up from $350 to over $900,” said Ellen McRae, a New York resident who attended the meeting. “I actually got an email that said I use 40 percent more energy than typical homes but when I called ConEd about that, I was told that they don’t have accurate data on my home. Why am I getting emails that are incorrect? It just seems Con Ed has been less than transparent with me.”
PULP Executive Director Richard Berkley said that the state warned Con Edison in October about a potential natural gas price increase, but the company overlooked that the forecast was based on last winter’s weather. With a much colder January, customers were hit with higher than expected bills. Average increases were 24 percent for gas heating and 15 percent for electric heating. Energy demand was heightened by people working remotely from home.
The jump in energy bills caught many consumers by surprise. Only on Feb. 11 did Con Ed send an email to customers addressing the crisis.
“I organized this meeting because I wanted to bring advocacy to my constituency,” Comrie said in a telephone interview. “We are trying to push against Con Ed by putting together a list of complaints, because the DPS currently cannot follow through with grievances. Their computer systems are too old, and they don’t hire enough people, so my team will take care of this issue.”
Sen. Comrie has sponsored several bills to try and assist New Yorkers and their energy predicaments. Senate bill S3422B would allow customers to take a complaint related to utility bills in court when damages exceed $25,000. Senate bill S2852 would authorize the DPS to investigate the feasibility of making utility services public. It would mean that Con Ed would be owned and operated by the State of New York. That would result in 15 percent lower bills, according to the American Public Power Association.
Comrie said it would create competition with private companies and drive prices down, but he received little support from both non-profit organizations and elected officials. Berkley disputed this.
“To make Con Edison public, New York City would need to buy it at its market value, which is estimated at $70 billion,” Berkley said in a phone interview. “You would not only buy a product you’ve been complaining about and forced to fix it, but you would also be compelled to increase utility rates for a long time, unless you find an alternative to pay your bill.”
Berkley added that ConEd currently represents four companies that provide gas, electricity and steam for 10 million people across New York City and Westchester County. This multiplicity of ownership makes it even more difficult to buy the company, and the Executive Director thinks that community leaders’ priority should be to assist low-income New Yorkers who have been behind on utility and rent payments. According to PULP data, one out of five New Yorkers are currently struggling with debts, and more than 1.2 million New York households have utility bills that have been overdue for more than 60 days. In the letter to Governor Hochul, the nonprofit organization states that consumers’ debt increased by more than $960 million between February 2020 and December 2021, and that 300,000 additional households are in danger of contracting inter-generational debts.
“We were very unhappy that Governor Hochul didn’t answer our first letter in November,” Berkeley said. “Tomorrow is the deadline for the 30-days period to file amendments to her spending budget, so I guess we’ll see if she took our concerns into account.”
During the meeting, PULP Deputy Director Laurie Wheelock explained that the utility shut-off moratorium, which provides protection to utility terminations, ended in December. While many New Yorkers are still protected by the Parker-Richardson Moratorium Act until June, 128,299 termination notices were sent by Con Edison in February, and 80,101 households are currently at risk for a service shutoff. She said that the organization’s next steps are to encourage lawmakers to introduce and pass legislation to expand the moratorium for all residents.