Cuomo sends mixed signals on LIPA's future

From left to right: Nassau County Executive Ed From left to right: Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, Jerome M. Hauer , Commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman make an announcement regarding superstorm Sandy recovery aid at Long Beach City Hall. (Dec. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has said bluntly that the Long Island Power Authority can't be fixed and needs dismantling, is sending strangely mixed signals on the issue.

Last week, key members of the state Assembly said they expect Cuomo to submit a budget amendment on privatizing LIPA.

Now, he's sending his chief political adviser, Larry Schwartz, to Long Island to sound out public officials and others on the issue.

Is Cuomo getting ready to punt, or is he trying to make it appear that he's listening before barreling ahead toward a private utility?

It's like trying to find meaning in a cup of swirling tea leaves: Should Cuomo be praised for slowing down his privatize-LIPA freight train, or criticized for playing political chess?

As it is, Cuomo has a problem on Long Island, where his rush to take LIPA private has been met with widespread criticism, publicly and privately, from elected officials and others.

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The push stumped even some ardent Cuomo supporters because neither the governor nor his investigative Moreland Commission -- which recommended going private before completing its public hearings or issuing its final report on the performance of local utilities during Sandy and other storms -- provided detail enough for anyone to champion Cuomo's notion.

The governor made a sound move in sending down Schwartz, who is from Port Jefferson, to take the region's temperature on where LIPA should go next.

In a Newsday story last week, sources in Albany seemed to indicate that all options remain on the table.

Those could include turning LIPA into one or several municipal-run utilities, continuing the current public-private hybrid or putting LIPA under the scrutiny of a more sharply fanged state Public Service Commission.

The most recent meeting of LIPA's board included discussion of LIPA's expenses in the wake of superstorm Sandy. A preliminary tally of $933 million for restoration costs for the storm highlights one reason why going private could hurt ratepayers.

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Because LIPA is a state authority rather than a privately owned utility, storm-related expenses are eligible to be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And because Sandy bared the fragile state of LIPA's infrastructure, the authority also can tap FEMA funds to harden the system against future storms.

These are among a variety of issues meriting discussion as part of a process that ought to be transparent and include the region's participation.

A variety of state and local officials have ideas about how to make LIPA work. The Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, also has put together a committee to study the issue.

The region stands willing and able to participate, and Cuomo can be praised for finally sending down a representative.

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Up until Cuomo's privatize-LIPA fervor, getting local input before deciding public policy decisions that significantly impact communities had been a trademark of his administration.

Glad to see him back on track.

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