Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos pointed the finger this week at weak oversight by county government and an "error-prone" LIPA billing system in an inquiry into why Nassau overpaid $4.5 million for electricity between 2009 and 2010.
Separately, Suffolk County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki said he hired an outside firm, Troy & Banks of Buffalo, in January to audit the county's LIPA and National Grid bills after finding some $2 million in overbilling by Verizon in a similar audit.
Sawicki said the audit of the gas and electric bills, amounting to $4.8 million and $25.7 million respectively in 2009, hasn't been completed yet. But Sawicki said that if he finds overbillings he will go back years, "as the statute of limitations allows," Suffolk to recoup as much as possible. "There's big money in dissecting these utility bills," he said.
In Nassau, Maragos said in a report Monday that "lack of oversight and accountability" at numerous county departments that dealt with LIPA, as well as a "lack of cooperation and responsiveness" from LIPA on billing discrepancies led to the overbillings.
According to the report, an error by the county in processing a $1.5-million overpayment in 2008-2009 compounded itself the following year to the point where Nassau had an accumulated LIPA credit of $4.5 million on its balanced-billing account.
To settle the billing dispute, LIPA cut Nassau a check for $2 million last year and allowed the county to skip a monthly payment. Nassau paid $18.8 million in electric bills in 2009.
In a statement, Maragos said the LIPA system for the county's 1,857 separate electrical accounts was "found to be error-prone and lacks customer protection features against unauthorized service installations and unauthorized changes to customer account settings." Nassau also incurred erroneous sales tax charges in certain instances, Maragos said.
In a statement Friday, LIPA said, "We fundamentally disagree with the comptroller and his findings." National Grid, on LIPA's behalf, had been meeting quarterly with the county since a new billing system was put in place in 2005, and increased the meetings recently to monthly, LIPA said. National Grid declined to comment.
Tom Ranallo, president of Troy & Banks, said his firm, under contract with the state Office of Taxpayer Accountability, already is conducting audits of LIPA and National Grid billing of the Long Island Rail Road and of state parks. He said the company has identified incorrect rates for entities such as Bethpage State Park dating back at least six years; LIPA has refunded seven months of overpayment, to the date when the firm identified the problem, he said.
Bethpage State Park received a refund of $1,000 for six months of overcharges, compared with the more than $10,000 Ranallo says are owed under state law. "It's like the Wild West with LIPA," he said, adding, "It seems to me they are not accountable to anyone."
LIPA spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said LIPA disagreed with Ranallo's assessment, but was unable immediately to provide detailed reasons.