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Activists urge LIPA to drop PSEG and become a fully public utility

Powerlines seen from Ruland Road in Melville, Aug.

Powerlines seen from Ruland Road in Melville, Aug. 13. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Ratepayers and energy activists overwhelmed a LIPA forum Thursday night to urge the utility to drop its newly proposed contract with PSEG and become a fully public utility.

All but one speaker during the 6 p.m. online forum urged LIPA not to go forward with the PSEG Long Island contract, criticizing the service provider for its failed response to Tropical Storm Isaias and saying it couldn't be trusted for another four years before the contract expires.

LIPA's board is set to vote on the new contract Dec. 15, and it awaits potentially monthslong approvals from the state attorney general and comptroller.

"Why are we extending more grace to a relationship that shouldn't exist in the first place?" said ratepayer Jeremy Joseph from activist group LI United.

A representative for the union that represents some 2,000 PSEG workers was the lone voice in favor of keeping PSEG.

Suffolk Leg. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) called LIPA's plan to award the contract to PSEG "a mistake" and urged the authority to at least wait until state Attorney General Letitia James’ probe of PSEG’s storm response is complete. James’ office has declined to comment about the probe, begun more than a year ago.

"It's high time we pause before obligating our ratepayers to another four years with a partner who has failed in so many ways," Fleming said.

LIPA chief executive Tom Falcone, who has said the new contract is the best in LIPA's history, noted that among other advantages, the new contract gives LIPA the right to terminate PSEG if LIPA decides to become a fully public utility.

PSEG in a statement said it was "eager to bring this collaborative agreement to closure" and "looks forward to continuing to serve" LIPA and its ratepayers.

Merrick ratepayer and activist Fred Harrison noted that PSEG has received hundreds of millions in compensation over the eight years of its LIPA contract and asked, "What have we gotten for our money? A company which needs intensive supervision in virtually every area of operation."

The new contract monitors PSEG for around 100 new performance metrics, compared to the existing 25. Falcone noted half of PSEG’s pay is now "at risk" if the company fails to perform.

Casey Scheid, a spokeswoman for local 1049 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, representing some 2,000 PSEG workers, was the lone public voice in support of the new contract. She said "consistency" of providers would be "beneficial to our workforce," and praised PSEG for safety improvements.

Charles Nieves, a ratepayer and an official with the Democratic Socialists of America, criticized PSEG for "failures which they lied about on multiple occasions," a claim widely made by LIPA officials and board members. Nieves noted that PSEG in August predicted potential two-week outages when Hurricane Henri threatened the coast, even after saying its storm response had been fixed, and told board members, "If you all vote for this contract, you all should resign."

"We are all just really fed up with PSEG — we're done with this relationship," said Laura McKellar, a ratepayer from Greenlawn. " … We need to end this relationship and we need public power."

LIPA has said it could save upward of $80 million a year by turning to the public power model, but it would require hiring more staff for LIPA, including a dozen new top managers, and would require a transition period. Its analysis completed in December found the option viable, and many believed it was on a course toward public power, but former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo brokered a new deal with PSEG's top brass in June, scuttling full municipalization. Many speakers, noting Cuomo's departure, urged LIPA to take a different path.

"That governor is gone now, perhaps we can revisit things," said Kings Park ratepayer Michael Brady, an attorney.

Paul Merkelson of Port Washington criticized the "bankruptcy of the model" by which LIPA contracts with an outside company to manage the system. He also noted public power companies have better track records on rate and reliability.

"Public power is not new, it works, it's something whose time has come," he said. "It's too important to put profit over public safety."

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