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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Take time to reorganize LIPA correctly

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking a bold step,

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking a bold step, saying he wants to fulfill the promise of LIPA to provide power that is less costly and more reliable. Even if that means making LIPA fade away. Credit: Ken Sawchuk

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is right in thinking that the Long Island Power Authority needs significant reworking. But, as Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) suggests, there's no reason for a mad rush.

As it is, the state inspector general and the Public Service Commission are investigating the utility. Why not wait for the results?

Meanwhile, National Grid, which manages the utility's day-to-day affairs, is a lame duck until another company, New Jersey-based PSEG, takes over the job in 2014. The transition will be difficult enough without LIPA going through an organizational reshuffle at the same time.

That's not to say that LIPA should remain as it is. Oh, no. With sky-high rates and cellar-bottom customer satisfaction, it is imperative that things change. In fact, they should have changed a long time ago.

What happened? Cuomo, correctly, points out that LIPA seems to have lost its way.

LIPA's first job after its creation in 1986 was to shutter and decommission the Shoreham nuclear power plant.

But then, the old Long Island Lighting Co. was tanking in performance, cost and public opinion. Customer confidence never recovered after the massive, extended outages from Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

A decade later, former Gov. George Pataki decided to act, leading to LIPA's takeover of LILCO in 1998. He gave LIPA a new mission: Get rates down, customer service up, and above all, keep Long Island's lights on.

The utility managed to do all three, until fuel costs began rocketing up. It also branched out into pushing construction of cross-water cables and small generating plants to increase the region's pool of available electricity. And it worked on pushing alternative energy, such as solar power.

Was it perfect? No. The utility -- one of the largest in the country -- was not regulated by the state Public Service Commission. It never came through with an elected board of trustees, which was part of the original plan. And it would later generate criticism for using what was said to be ratepayer monies to contribute to community groups.

Beyond that, as time went on, the utility that once reveled in being Not-LILCO became, for customers, just as awful as its predecessor. What Gloria was to LILCO, last year's Tropical Storm Irene was to LIPA.

The authority has yet to recover from that fiasco because for half of Long Island the lights went off.

And stayed off far too long.

Cuomo believes LIPA's bureaucracy is bloated. And perhaps it is. He is recommending, correctly, that LIPA return to its original mission. "I think we should go back to the original point, which was an oversight-advocacy-holding organization and not just another bloated bureaucracy," Cuomo said.

But can a holding-company-like replacement bring LIPA back? The governor is also said to believe that some of LIPA's functions can be reassigned to other state agencies. Will that guarantee that the region's customers get the attention they deserve?

There's no other utility in the nation that's organized like LIPA -- which serves an oversight rather than traditional utility operational role. Still, the LIPA of the future ought to bring along the best of LIPA's past.

What form should that take? The inspector general and PSC reports can help. So would transparency as the reorganization goes through. Customers deserve to know what is changing, why and what impact, positive or negative, any change will have.

All customers want -- indeed, what we deserve -- is good service at a reasonable cost. And, above all, keep those lights on.


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