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LIPA backs off on proposal to charge late fees

LIPA chief executive Kevin Law during a meeting

LIPA chief executive Kevin Law during a meeting Tuesday with the Hauppauge Industrial Association in which he posed the problem of power for Long Island's future. (March 9, 2010) Photo Credit: James Carbone

Ratepayers anxious to hear LIPA's account of last week's storm-related outages will get their chance at a trustees meeting in Uniondale on Thursday. But one thing they won't hear about is a recently proposed - and quickly scuttled - plan to begin charging late fees for tardy LIPA bills.

The Long Island Power Authority said Monday it will give a 20-minute presentation about the storm, including its response to the 263,000 outages and its costs, at a regularly scheduled board meeting at LIPA headquarters Thursday at 11 a.m. The meeting will include a typical opportunity for public comments.

But nixed from the agenda is a proposal to begin hitting residential customers with a 1.5 percent charge for bills that are 23 or more days late. LIPA held hearings about the proposal on March 12 - a day before the storm.

LIPA chief Kevin Law decided to shelve the idea four days later, as LIPA crews were still working to restore power to tens of thousands of customers. LIPA said the decision to withdraw it took into account the local economy and "the fact that many Long Islanders are still struggling financially."

LIPA spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said while the storm and wide-ranging outages weren't the reason for the withdrawal, those factors didn't help. She didn't rule out implementing it in the future, when the local economy improves.

One observer said he wouldn't have been open to the new charges last week.

"People are still mad at LIPA - I'm mad at LIPA," said Marc Tenzer, president of the Mill Brook Civic Association, a community in Valley Stream which had 100 homes without power from Saturday until Thursday night. "We weren't a priority."

Rather than consider increasing fees, Tenzer said, "I think LIPA needs to look at their disaster program and how they handle hurricane-force winds."

The strongest winds of nearly 75 mph were not forecast, and winds combined with four inches of rain downed trees and wreaked havoc with the system. Crews from Canada to Kentucky helped LIPA crews restore power to all customers by Thursday evening. LIPA described the March 13 storm as the worst in 20 years.

No customers attended the March 12 hearings for the proposed late fee, Baird-Streeter said. Documents about the proposal were removed from the LIPA Web site March 16, she said.

Though it's not pursuing them, LIPA says the charges are common in the industry. "We were informed that we are the only utility that doesn't charge the fee," Baird-Streeter said. LIPA does assess late fees on commercial customers.

At the end of 2009, 173,123 of LIPA's 1.1 million customers were at least 30 days late paying their bill. The proposal would have excluded those who are current on payments, customers whose bills are paid by social services and those disputing bills.

Citing lingering outrage over outages, Tenzer advised: "They should wait at least six months."

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