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Sources: LIPA to name new chief at Friday meeting

A Long Island Power Authority truck is among

A Long Island Power Authority truck is among those arriving to make repairs in Belle Harbor a couple of weeks after superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 12, 2012) Credit: AP

The Long Island Power Authority is expected to name a new top official Friday at a hastily scheduled trustees meeting, according to sources.

The LIPA chief executive post has been vacant for more than two years, but it's not clear whether the new hire would take that slot or the chief operating officer post. The latter is currently held by Michael Taunton, who also is LIPA's chief financial officer.

LIPA chairman Larry Waldman didn't return several calls seeking comment Thursday. Spokesmen for LIPA and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is in the midst of a work-in-progress plan to reform LIPA, also declined to comment.

LIPA spokesman Mark Gross did confirm that another top LIPA executive, Tracy Burgess-Levy, executive director of community development and government affairs, left the authority Wednesday. She's one of a growing list of officials and staffers to leave in the wake of criticism of LIPA following superstorm Sandy.

The management shuffle comes as state legislators and ratepayers await word of Cuomo's plan to reform the beleaguered authority.

With lawmakers showing continued resistance to the governor's initial plan to sell LIPA assets to a private company, the Cuomo administration this week signaled a slight shift in its position on the prospect of utility PSEG managing the LIPA system under contract, as planned, next year. In a statement, Cuomo spokesman Matt Wing said the governor's staff was reviewing "all options" to reform LIPA, including "possible changes in the arrangements with PSEG to improve accountability and operations." He declined to elaborate.

But the statement is a deviation from Cuomo's previous statements, and recommendations by the Moreland Commission, suggesting that LIPA's public-private partnership isn't working. The commission described the current public-private partnership -- under which National Grid runs the system under contract to LIPA -- as "untenable."

For the past month, Cuomo staffers have been meeting with experts and crunching the numbers on the options. In the statement to Newsday last week, Cuomo's office discussed other alternatives.

The work also "includes analyzing operating synergy benefits that would result from greater integration with other utility systems, a review of LIPA's power contracts . . . " Wing said.

He stressed that "no final decision has yet been made," and said, in any case, the final plan will emphasize "keeping rates affordable, keeping property taxes low, and improving customer service as well as disaster readiness and response."

Cuomo has called for strengthening the state Public Service Commission, and making LIPA subject to its scrutiny. An administration source said Cuomo's review "includes options for increased oversight."

Legislators who greeted the privatization plan with skepticism in January are open to all options, but the clock is running. Cuomo has said he'd prefer to have legislation relating to LIPA reform passed during the current session, which ends in June.

State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), said he believes the transition to PSEG, in a model called "servco" was "the way to go, quite honestly, at this juncture."

LaValle said the option could prove acceptable for Cuomo, with improved terms, because "it does have a private company component to it." PSEG is stockholder owned.

Either way, LaValle and other legislators said, Cuomo needs to act soon. With the session more than half over, the Senate must thoroughly analyze any Cuomo proposal. That could push a vote on any bill to a December session.

As for more scrutiny of a PSEG-managed LIPA, LaValle said, "I would support PSC oversight for PSEG in a second, as we have for many, many years."

He's joined in that regard by state Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), who has sponsored legislation to give PSC oversight to LIPA.

While many options for LIPA may be on the table, Sweeney said, "My sense of things is the governor personally would still like to do privatization, but is not picking up support, because he doesn't have any support for it on Long Island."

Without a concrete plan for reform soon, Sweeney said his expectation is "LIPA sticks around, PSEG takes control January 2014, and we'll try to make other fixes that will head LIPA in the right dirction." Sweeney said most short-term fixes include problems that became evident during superstorm Sandy.

Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), said whatever is proposed in coming weeks or months needs to be fully aired in public.

"The public deserves a full vetting, a fully transparent process," he said.

If the conclusion is that a privatized LIPA is the best solution, Thiele said, he suspects Cuomo may have a large burden of proof.

"People have been skeptical," he said of the option, which some analysis indicates would increase rates. "I thought I was skeptical, then I started talking to my constituents."

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