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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

LIPA could have forestalled outrage over bills

LIPA worker Neil Williams, of LIPA's Emergency Services,

LIPA worker Neil Williams, of LIPA's Emergency Services, is on the scene along Northside Road in Yaphank Monday morning to restore power. (Nov. 5, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

How hard would it have been for the Long Island Power Authority to explain clearly and in a timely manner that customers would not be charged for electricity they did not -- and could not -- have used during power outages after superstorm Sandy?

But instead of doing something simple -- such as inserting a letter in the bills that went out last week -- the authority waited several more days before encouraging customers to call in meter readings and announcing that LIPA would accept partial payments.

Didn't anybody at the authority suspect that many of the 90 percent of customers who lost power -- and endured the added stress of not knowing when it would be restored -- might go ballistic at receiving the usual monthly bill?

Apparently not.

What's frustrating is that just about everything LIPA announced to quell customers' anger was already available. Customers, for example, had the option of reading their own meters long before Sandy came to town.

Yes, as LIPA officials pointed out, the responsibility for billing rests with a contractor, National Grid. Yes, as officials pointed out, the utility's billing system could not take Sandy's outages into account.

But that does nothing to spare LIPA from more criticism about how it communicates -- or more accurately, fails to quickly and clearly communicate -- with its customers.

The billing fiasco is one more example of LIPA's tin ear for customer relations.

What's maddening is that communication was supposed to be a key part of LIPA's storm planning, especially since LIPA was excoriated for how it handled customers after Tropical Storm Irene.

"What the hell happened?" That was the first question State Sen. Carl Marcellino asked LIPA officials on Sept. 21, 2011, during a committee hearing on LIPA's communications breakdown with customers during power restoration post-Irene.

The answer by LIPA chief Michael Hervey was that the authority's response had been "swift, strong and on par" with regional utilities. Not surprisingly, Marcellino is planning a hearing on Sandy-related failures.

Hervey did acknowledge, however, that "we understand customers' frustration" with the lack of real-time restoration information.

Fast forward to Sandy, when LIPA's new communications plan -- for which it held drills -- completely falls apart. Early on, municipalities complained about a lack of significant information from the authority.

As for customers, they complained about not being able to get through on LIPA's telephone lines. Residents desperate for information were locked out of LIPA headquarters.

In the days -- and in many cases, weeks -- after the storm, customers reported having to track down utility workers in or near their neighborhoods in attempts to determine when power would be restored.

Others -- and this went against every aspect of LIPA's new communications plan, which stressed that customer satisfaction was every employee's job -- told of encounters with rude LIPA employees.

The communication breach was so complete that even LIPA became its own victim as successes -- such as restoring power to the Long Island Rail Road and to local hospitals significantly faster than after Irene -- were obliterated by the anger and frustration of customers.

One LIPA mission, since its inception as a state authority, is to advocate for its customers. The billing blunder, sadly, is one more indication of how short it fell of that goal.

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