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Senior citizens rally at PSEG, LIPA office in support of consumer advocate bill

Herman Diaz, left of Deer Park, and Florence

Herman Diaz, left of Deer Park, and Florence McLaughlin, of Lindenhurst, and other members of AARP protest in Uniondale in front of LIPA's headquarters May 8, 2014. Credit: Chris Ware

Long Island senior citizens rallied Thursday afternoon at the Uniondale headquarters of LIPA and PSEG Long Island, asking state senators to pass a bill that would create an independent utility consumer advocate for New York.

The issue is timely for Long Island, according to officials at the state AARP, which organized the rally and is pushing the bill, because PSEG Long Island is expected to file a request with the state next year to increase rates in 2016.

"We already hear from our members they have had trouble paying their bills," said Bill Ferris, New York legislative representative for AARP. "We don't want them to be hit with another increase in 2016."

Under the LIPA Reform Act passed last year, a promised three-year rate freeze went into effect in 2013, but lifts at the end of 2015. During a recent LIPA board committee meeting, a LIPA official acknowledged there was pressure on rates and that work on a rate case -- a regulatory filing justifying an increase -- had already begun.

A bill introduced in the State Legislature would create an independent office of a utility consumer advocate to represent customers across the state in rate cases and other matters, for electric, water, telecom and other utilities. It would have the power to sue on behalf of consumers, particularly on rate cases before the state seeking increases.

Noting a series of increases in the power-supply charge portion of electric bills over the past eight months, Ferris said the anticipated PSEG rate case "could lead to the other half of the bill going up. Right now, consumers don't have a place at the table."

Ferris said a recently crafted version of the consumer advocate bill has been moving through the Assembly and could be passed next week, but said the GOP-led Senate has balked at supporting it.

"When LIPA/PSEG knows it can be sued if the rate increase is unfair, they will certainly be aware that threat is out there," Ferris said. "There is no reason why Long Island senators should not be behind this proposal." Forty other states have such an advocate, he said.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Kerri Biche, a spokeswoman for Assembly leader Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), said the Assembly version is "ready to be taken to the floor" for a vote, though she couldn't say when that would occur. "Clearly the majority has supported it," she said of previous versions of the bill passed by the Assembly.

A prior version of the bill, which passed the Assembly but not the Senate, would have empowered the Department of State to make fully independent its existing utility intervention unit.

The new bill makes it a stand-alone office. The advocate would be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate for a six-year term. A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo didn't respond to a request asking if the governor supported the measure. Ferris said Cuomo's office previously has said it believes there is "enough representation for consumers now."

Any PSEG request for a rate increase in 2016 would be reviewed by the state Department of Public Service, which has an office in Plainview. LIPA trustees would approve any rate request.

PSEG Long Island spokesman Jeff Weir said, "We share AARP's concerns about high rates and have worked to keep the portion of the bill that we can control -- transmission and distribution [the delivery charge portion of bills] -- flat for the first two years of operation."

He said the company was "always willing to work with anyone representing our customers," but said the company would "leave the issue of a consumer advocate to the elected officials on Long Island."

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