Long Island Power Authority trustees are ready to turn on the lights for the new manager of the electrical system, just as most of them are also getting ready to exit the building.
The outgoing board is expected to award a 12-year operating contract today to PSEG that gives the publicly traded New Jersey utility full operational control and responsibility for providing electricity to 1.1 million customers in Nassau, Suffolk and Far Rockaway starting in January. The action is a procedural step, but a significant one as it ushers in a new era for LIPA, one that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promises will be marked by better service, more accountability -- state regulators will have a walk-in office near the Nassau-Suffolk border for complaints -- and downward pressure on costs. Good luck.
To shape this brighter future, however, Cuomo and every other stakeholder must remain intensely focused these next three months on the transition from current operator National Grid to PSEG. Meanwhile, by Dec. 1, the governor and state legislative leaders must select nine new trustees for a board shrunken from 15 members. The new trustees will need the skills and stature to provide the vital oversight. LIPA's overhead power lines can't all be buried, but surely Albany can bury LIPA's legacy of political patronage once and for all.
After Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the LIPA board decided to get rid of National Grid, choosing PSEG as the system operator. But the board created a convoluted management structure that allowed LIPA executives to call the shots, while letting them hide behind an opaque construct called Servco. It was doomed to fail.
The post-Sandy uproar over LIPA's performance in 2012, however, finally convinced the Island's legislative delegation that bigger changes were needed. The LIPA Reform Act signed in June stopped well short of privatization, but nonetheless significantly cut down the operational influence of LIPA. PSEG will not only have responsibility, but greater flexibility, in areas including storm preparation, system maintenance, grid upgrades, fuel purchasing, capital expenditure and budget preparation.
The new LIPA is being assembled according to directions from Albany. Let's hope it can power up.