Editorial: LIPA shoots itself in the foot -- again

A typical residential LIPA bill. (Nov. 19, 2012) A typical residential LIPA bill. (Nov. 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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Why does the Long Island Power Authority keep giving the impression that it's using a public relations handbook called "How to Make Enemies and Get Burned in Effigy"?

Faced with a touchy situation, LIPA instinctively does exactly the wrong thing, angers pretty much its entire customer base, then switches course and does what it should have in the first place, managing to right the wrong but not quell the anger. LIPA needs to fix its public relations problems, but it would be even more helpful to repair its operational problems, so these troubles don't crop up in the first place.

In the wake of superstorm Sandy, customers are complaining that, because their bills are estimated and meters are not read monthly, it appears they are being charged for power they did not and could not use during outages. Some are also angry about a 36-cent per-day service charge for days when they had no service. For many, neither of these issues is a big deal financially, but they are emotionally.

Customers with estimated bills charged for power they didn't use would recoup the money the next time their meter is read. As for the 36-cent daily charge, LIPA, as a state entity, gets all its money from ratepayers, so not paying a tiny charge for days when power was out only means rates would rise to make up the lost revenue.

But LIPA's reaction to the firestorm over the lack of discounts was terrible, a sure sign of an authority in a tailspin. Last week, it offered little consolation to customers, 90 percent of whom lost power for some period, and never explained why it couldn't stop the bills from going out. But Monday, once people were good and angry, it announced measures aimed at "softening the blow" of the situation: Penalties for late and partial payments will not be enforced, collection efforts will be relaxed and customers will be encouraged to call in their own meter readings. These are the right things to do, and LIPA could have saved itself a lot of trouble by doing them in the first place, if it had any communications savvy.

But it could have saved itself even more trouble throughout this ordeal if it had a modern "smart grid," with meters that transmit readings remotely, if it let utilities know when service is interrupted and if it gave consumers the information they need to cut consumption and save money.

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The failures in both operations and public relations follow a familiar pattern.

In May 2011, LIPA generated public fury when it tried to charge Shelter Island Town a $5-per-pole fee for 19 flags it wanted to fly to honor Army 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Eventually, stung by the outrage, LIPA head Michael Hervey offered to pay the fee, which the authority at first claimed it was legally required to collect. Why not do the right thing as soon as it comes up? That same month, faced with an East Patchogue couple who had been overbilled $8,000 over 11 years because their house was classified as a commercial location, LIPA refused to refund all of the overcharges. Cue public rage at LIPA. Cue LIPA refunding all the money.

LIPA needs effective public relations. But effective electric meters, policies and billing procedures would be great, too.

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