Only option is to make right choice for LIPA

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) (Credit: AP)

The state is right to reconsider the Long Island Power Authority's role. The trick, however, would be to replace it with something that will work better for Nassau and Suffolk ratepayers.

That won't be easy.

According to a Newsday report, the state is considering a number of options, including going back to a privately owned and operated utility system.


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That would take us back to the days of the much-hated Long Island Lighting Co., which -- especially after Hurricane Gloria -- managed to provide awful service to customers paying some of the highest rates in the nation.

The awfulness of that service -- even though LILCO's rates, unlike LIPA's, were reviewed by the state's Public Service Commission -- was what led former Gov. George Pataki to pull the trigger on LILCO.

Perhaps going private would work. One way might be to isolate, or, better, sever LIPA's formidable debt from a deal. That would be difficult; and given LIPA's complexity maybe even impossible.

A recent LIPA study concluded that going private would jack up customers' rates by up to 20 percent because a private company assuming the authority's debt would lose LIPA's enviable municipal tax status.

Given the stunning amount of destruction to the region's electricity infrastructure caused by Sandy, there may be other considerations as well.

As a public entity, LIPA is entitled to FEMA reimbursement for a substantial amount of its storm costs. That's significant because, unlike private utilities in the metropolitan area, LIPA won't have to pass most of those costs down to ratepayers.

And as the region moves to recovery, LIPA, again as a municipal entity, could go to FEMA to seek reimbursement for fixing -- and then hardening -- the system against future storms.

Private companies don't have that option.

State officials are considering privatizing the region's electric system as one of a variety of options. Whatever decision likely will come quickly because the last thing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or anyone else wants, with January around the corner, is a winter storm feeding another LIPA crisis.

But just as Cuomo -- who this week appointed a new LIPA board member and named a new chairman -- began leading a very public charge on LIPA, it will be up to him to sell whatever comes next.

Will LIPA live on as a holding company for debt? Much as the Nassau Interim Finance Authority -- when Nassau's finances, for a time, got better -- fell back to a much reduced role?

Or could its mission to ensure that Long Islanders have good electric service at reasonable rates be combined with those of the New York Power Authority?

One plus with private ownership is that the utility would face oversight from the PSC; but opening up LIPA's operations to more scrutiny would help, too.

LIPA's future, properly, is on the state's drawing board right now. Whatever comes will be Cuomo's legacy. The challenge, as always in such cases, is to ensure that it's a good one.