Carrie Meek Gallagher, the new director of the Long Island office of the Department of Public Service, has a to-do list large enough to fill an office whiteboard, but none of the dozens of tasks before her is more fundamental than addressing the gripe of ratepayers such as Kim Kerber of Commack.
"I’ve never heard of them," said Kerber, who like hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders, lost power for around a week during Tropical Storm Isaias in August 2020. What she didn’t know at the time is that there even was a DPS office on Long Island whose sole role was overseeing the utility, including its plans for storm preparedness, and fielding customer complaints about service.
"I wish I would have known about them," said Kerber.
The Long Island office of the state Department of Public Service was set up as a requirement of the LIPA Reform Act of 2012, in part as a way to address concerns that LIPA, unlike other state utilities, wasn’t formally regulated by the state Public Service Commission and was simultaneously losing some oversight by the state comptroller’s office.
The plan was not only for the newly created Long Island DPS office to spearhead rate reviews and a five-year management audit of LIPA and its contractor, PSEG Long Island, but to field complaints from LIPA’s 1.1 million customers. The office also would field complaints from customers of other Long Island utilities such as National Grid and New York American Water and Altice, which have also been criticized for service issues.
In September, the state office announced that Gallagher, who previously ran the Long Island regional office for the state Department of Environmental Conservation as regional director, would take over the DPS office as director. Between the DEC and DPS, Gallagher was acting deputy secretary for energy and the environment under former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a role that involved overseeing 12 state agencies, including DPS, and LIPA, 5,000 employees and $2 billion in budgets.
PSC commissioner and former chairman John Howard described Gallagher as a "proven manager who moves easily from vision and strategy to implementation and results."
Those skills will be needed to change the face of the Long Island DPS office that one elected official called "a waste of space."
"It has no authority," state Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said this summer. "It literally has contributed nothing to the process."
In an interview with Newsday, Gallagher said her role will be to increase the visibility of the office, by increasing awareness of its mission and how customers can reach it, while serving as a more visible advocate for ratepayers in ongoing utility matters.
"People will know there’s a Long Island office," she said. "They’ll know they can contact us for assistance … and we’ll be much more visible in all ways, shapes and forms: on the web, on social media, at meetings, giving presentations, engaging in a much more regular routine way with all the ratepayers, consumers, businesses and stakeholders on Long Island."
Gallagher and her team are working with LIPA and PSEG as they hammer out a new contract that she said will give the department a greater ability to hold PSEG’s feet to the fire if problems like those following Isaias crop up again.
The new contract "would actually give DPS and the Long Island office a lot more teeth when it comes to oversight of LIPA and PSEG," she said, noting that a greater percentage of PSEG’s compensation — around half its $80 million annual fee, LIPA has said — will be tied to performance. Assuming a contract is finalized in coming weeks or months, the new contract "will give us the tools we need to be more effective in our oversight."
"The new contract will be key for both of us," LIPA chief executive Tom Falcone said, referring to LIPA and DPS. "In the end it’s going to be a contractual relationship. You can’t put regulation in a contract … A stronger contract is the key ingredient."
But not everyone agrees. Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport), said the only way to get Long Island customers that oversight is by subjecting LIPA and PSEG to the same scrutiny and penalties investor-owned utilities such as Con Edison face. He is calling for a revision of the LIPA Reform Act with a provision for full Public Service Commission jurisdiction.
"I continue to view the DPS, this office for Long Island, as just something created to basically provide information, but it has no teeth," said Gaughran, who said he once hired Gallagher as chief sustainability officer when he was chairman of the Suffolk Water Authority and finds her "extremely qualified" for the DPS job.
Gallagher said the tough new performance metrics for PSEG being discussed as part of the contract negotiations will help deliver for ratepayers the "kind of tough oversight they should get," and pointed to an upcoming DPS management audit of LIPA and PSEG starting in December to address the complaints.
LIPA hasn’t been subjected to a rate review by the DPS office in more than five years, for instance.
Gallagher noted that while her office by law can’t initiate a full rate review unless LIPA’s annual rate request for the upcoming year exceeds 2.5%, she plans to review the series of mechanisms that LIPA has to increase other elements of customer bills to avoid that threshold, including delivery service adjustments and decoupling charges on bills.
"It’s certainly something I’ll be talking to staff about," she said. "And we’re going to be launching the next management audit, which really gives us a chance to go through with a fine-toothed comb all of the options of LIPA and see where there might be things that we need to revisit or recommend changes in their practices."
DPS Long Island started with an annual budget of $5 million, but spokesman James Denn said the budget now is "well in excess" of that figure.
The Long Island DPS staff of 23 people is about to be increased. DPS said staff could reach 30 next year to handle the increased workload of policing PSEG’s adherence to the new metrics, among other jobs. LIPA also has been staffing up, to more than 60 employees after a low point of about 40 following the Reform Act. She said the "right size" for LIPA is also something she’ll be reviewing in the management audit.
How to reach DPS Long Island
General customer helpline: 800-342-3377
For gas and electric shut-offs: 800-342-3355
The agency’s website is: www.dps.ny.gov/longisland/
125 East Bethpage Road,
Plainview, NY 11803