Joye Brown: Let's take time to devise a post-LIPA plan

A Long Island Power Authority truck is among A Long Island Power Authority truck is among those arriving to make repairs in Belle Harbor a couple of weeks after superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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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 ...

Let's put the brakes on a move to privatize the Long Island Power Authority and give a full airing to an option that never was given a fair chance. Instead of abolishing LIPA, why not turn it into one or more local municipal utilities?

Already, there's considerable pushback on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's call to bring in a private utility to serve the region's electricity needs. State lawmakers representing several districts in Nassau and Suffolk expressed doubts publicly for the first time in a story in Newsday Monday.

They aren't alone.

There are multiple other skeptics -- in and out of government -- who are working behind the scenes to quietly try to strangle Cuomo's proposal.

These locals view going to a private company as a wrongheaded, financially unworkable policy directive being handed down from Albany with little local input.

Cuomo and members of the Moreland Commission -- Cuomo's investigative panel, which, strangely, backed the idea of going private before completing a series of public hearings or finalizing its report -- would do well not to underestimate the resolve of Long Islanders when it comes to electricity.

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Long Island has the distinction of being a place where pressure from residents successfully shuttered an operational nuclear power plant in the 1980s.

Changes in federal law would make that impossible for other communities today. But the fight that forced the closure of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, hastened the death of Long Island Lighting Co. and forged LIPA's creation left an unusually deep pool of residents with knowledge on energy matters.

For all of that expertise and experience, however, Long Island still lacks an electric utility that can provide top-notch service. Why?

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For one, the region since the 1980s has been locked into a pattern. Something goes awry, residents get angry and the something changes, though not necessarily the right thing.

That's what happened with Shoreham. It happened again to LILCO after the utility botched its response to Hurricane Gloria in 1985. And it appears poised to happen again, post-superstorm Sandy, with a governor who ignored LIPA for most of his term only to have it become a still-growing thorn in his side.

A spokesman for Cuomo told Newsday that all options remain on the table, although he expressed doubt that a "public bureaucracy" would work.

Going private could be a quick way to end the state's involvement, although a story in Crain's New York Business last week stated that analysts believe that a successful private sale would require New York State to assume at least $4 billion of LIPA's $7 billion debt.

Would New York, which is facing its own financial hurdles, be willing to take on more debt? That seems unlikely.

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Meanwhile, the state has yet to release enough detail on Cuomo's idea to allow Long Island to make sense of the governor's recommendation.

So why not call a time out and put every option -- including going to a municipal system -- back on the table?

The villages of Rockville Centre and Freeport, which have their own electric systems, did not suffer the communications and other breakdowns suffered by LIPA.

Would it be possible for some variation of LIPA to go large, with one municipal utility, or go small, with several?

The region has been roiling with complaints about how Long Island gets electricity for three decades. This time, let's get it right.

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