LIPA trustees on Tuesday approved a $3.586 billion budget that will hike average monthly bills by $3 or more next year, while approving a controversial policy to limit board members’ speech and fielding supportive comments from wind-farm advocates for an offshore project that has yet to be approved.
LIPA in response to Newsday said higher anticipated fuel costs in the 2017 budget necessitated at least a $3.25 monthly increase for customers using less than 775 kilowatt-hours a month. Estimates of the potential bill impact have fluctuated in recent months, and there were indications Tuesday that the final number could go higher depending on 2017 fuel-cost projections, among other factors.
The new trustee communications policy limits board members from disclosing confidential information and says they “shall” refer all public or media inquiries on matters of fact to the LIPA chief executive or director of public information. They must “endeavor to express their individual opinions in a responsible manner,” and clearly state that opinions are their own, not the board’s.
Criticism of LIPA decisions is permitted “so long as such criticism complies with the other limitations” in the new communications policy. Trustees “should refrain from publicly espousing a position on matters that may come before the board prior to reviewing the record or recommendation.” They are “encouraged” to notify the CEO or information director in advance if they plan to speak publicly or to the media.
Eight of nine LIPA trustees voted in favor of the policy, and several issued defenses of it during the board meeting. Trustee Matthew Cordaro voted against it, saying it was unnecessary, redundant and, citing a Committee on Open Government advisory opinion in September, possibly illegal. The committee’s executive director, Robert Freeman, wrote at the time, “Having reviewed the policy, its legality is, in my view, questionable.”
Cordaro noted no other New York State authority has a similar policy, but defenders said other public power companies have adopted similar or more stringent policies.
Trustee Elkan Abramowitz, a criminal-defense lawyer whose firm is representing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a federal probe of his Buffalo Billion initiative, disputed the contention that anything about the policy was illegal, or that the Committee on Open Government viewed it as such. “There really is no conflict” with state law, said Abromowitz, a Cuomo appointee to the board.
Much of the board meeting centered on LIPA’s previously stated plan to contract for a 15-turbine wind farm located between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Rhode Island. Green-energy advocates said the project is needed to jump-start the U.S. offshore wind industry. Commercial fishing advocate Bonnie Brady said it would devastate fishing grounds and urged LIPA to instead fix its “broken grid.”
Union leaders said Long Island needs the jobs the wind farm project by developer Deepwater Wind would provide, though it’s unclear how many construction jobs would be Long Island-based given the array’s location 30 miles from Montauk Point.
LIPA chief Tom Falcone said, “We continue to negotiate with Deepwater.”