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National Grid hearing focuses on low-income rate relief

Commercial gas meters in Riverhead for National Grid,.

Commercial gas meters in Riverhead for National Grid,. Nov. 2, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

ALBANY — National Grid wants to spend an additional $1.3 million a year on discounts for low-income Long Islanders even though the company has left $8.2 million unspent on those programs since 2007.

At a technical conference here as part of the company’s 22 percent rate-hike proposal, an attorney questioned a National Grid figure that only 11,000 of its 600,000 Long Island customers are eligible for low-income discounts and other rate relief. National Grid spent $3.3 million on low-income programs on Long Island last year. The company said it needs to do more to identify eligible customers.

Saul Rigsberg, an attorney working for the Public Utility Law Project, which argues cases on behalf of ratepayers, said census figures show that the number of low-income customers on Long Island might be far greater than 11,000.

Kate Granger, National Grid’s manager for low-income programs, said the company has “always had a difficult time identifying those customers.” She said it has increased outreach, and would do more if the planned rate request, which would hike average residential bills by $15.68 a month, is approved.

National Grid spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said the unspent $8.2 million “will be maintained on (the company’s) books for future use to benefit of low-income customers.” She said the rate request includes programs to identify more eligible low-income customers.

National Grid said the proposed discounts for low-income customers would “mitigate” the impact of the rate increase, but wouldn’t fully offset it.

Most of the more than $140 million in new revenue National Grid hopes to collect from customers starting next year would go to replacing leak-prone steel and cast-iron gas lines with new plastic pipes. It would mean hiring 110 more employees, most of them classified as managers.

Among dozens of other changes, the company proposes doing away with a program called On Track, which gives customers relief from arrears and provides financial counseling. The company said the program faces declining enrollment and increasing default rates.

National Grid also is proposing to change the scorecard under which it is penalized by state regulators for missing performance targets, adding three new metrics, while allowing overperformance in certain categories to offset underperformance in others, and eliminating tripled and quadrupled penalties for missing multiple years of standards.

National Grid was hit with $8.9 million in penalties last year for missing complaint and customer-satisfaction scores in 2014.

“I don’t believe they deserve to offset an area where they are not doing well,”said Doug DiCeglio, president of Utility Rate Analysis Consulting in Lynbrook, during a break in the conference. “It doesn’t help the customer.”

DiCeglio charged that complaints may be vastly undercounted by the state Department of Public Service, because of the agency’s practice of not registering complaints fast enough or granting extensions to the utility before they are registered into a state database.

DPS spokesman James Denn said, “Annually, the Public Service Commission resolves thousands of consumer complaints and returns millions of dollars to consumers.”

Sue Mais, National Grid’s vice president of customer care, said, “Clearly the goal is to drive higher performance, not game the system.”

Proceedings in National Grid’s rate hike request will continue for the next 10 months, and any rate increase would go into effect in January.

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