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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

With LIPA, this is no time for a hasty decision

A sign to LIPA in Massapequa's Biltmore Shores

A sign to LIPA in Massapequa's Biltmore Shores neighborhood. (Nov. 10, 2012) Credit: Emily Ngo

Everybody hates LIPA -- so much so that the state Moreland Commission is recommending that it ought to be hung, quartered and sold off to a private utility company.

Kathleen Rice, a commission member and Nassau's district attorney, echoed other members Monday in calling LIPA "one of the most powerful curse words on Long Island and Queens, I would venture to say."

If hating something were enough to kill it, the Internal Revenue Service and a host of other agencies wouldn't be around.

But hate alone cannot and should not justify LIPA's death. Deciding what comes next for Long Island's electricity customers should involve more than shooting at an easy target.

Did LIPA mess up badly during superstorm Sandy? Absolutely. The lights should have come on sooner and it was inexcusable that so many customers were left without power and no clue of when it might be restored.

It also didn't help that the authority had more than enough repair crews but couldn't get them organized sooner.

Still, a preliminary report released by the state investigative panel Monday went little beyond customers' understandable anger at LIPA to justify a recommendation that it be replaced with a privately owned company.

It was almost as if the commission was helping Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo warm up before Wednesday's scheduled State of the State address, where the governor is expected to go into more detail on LIPA's fate.

Remember the old Long Island Lighting Co.? Customer anger after Hurricane Gloria in 1985 -- piled on top of regional agita about the Shoreham nuclear power plant -- helped kill LILCO.

Back then, LIPA was billed as the savior of Long Island's ratepayers. The state authority was envisioned as a mechanism to help keep customer costs down.

During LIPA's good old early days, the authority paid customers' postage on bills -- and kept it up long after other utilities, wisely, stopped the practice to trim rising costs.

LIPA, for a time, did a lot of other civic-minded things, including making contributions to community organizations.

At the beginning, customers felt good about LIPA simply because it wasn't LILCO. That's probably why few bothered to question why the authority devoted resources toward customer goodwill to a degree that few private utilities did.

Post-superstorm Sandy, are customers now supposed to start feeling good about the prospect of returning to a private utility company? Nope.

The fact is that Long Island has no need to love any electricity provider. What we need is to rely on the firm -- be it public or private -- to do the job of providing electricity at reasonable rates, performing better system maintenance and handling storms and their aftermath -- especially communications with customers -- better than LIPA did during Sandy.

The policy discussion ought to involve the region as Cuomo, who as governor ultimately is responsible for the authority, decides what will come next.

The commission's preliminary report appears to skim over some of the pros and cons of retooling LIPA, killing it or making electric service private.

There will come a time to dig more deeply into the options and their justifications.

One issue unaddressed by the Moreland Commission is a LIPA study that determined that going to private ownership would significantly increase customer costs.

That's something Long Islanders, who already pay some of the highest rates in the nation, really would hate.

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