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Editorial: Panel's task -- envision a LIPA successor

A Long Island Power Authority in Belle Harbor,

A Long Island Power Authority in Belle Harbor, Queens. (Nov. 12, 2012) Credit: AP

The two new investigations initiated to evaluate the post-Sandy performance of New York's utility companies should be viewed with hopeful skepticism, particularly when it comes to the Long Island Power Authority.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo named the reliably hard-nosed Regina Calcaterra, chief deputy to the Suffolk County executive, as executive director of a new Moreland Commission to look into LIPA. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has issued subpoenas to LIPA and Con Edison to get answers about storm preparedness and response. Both, though, have an air of showmanship.

Cuomo has gone two years without naming a LIPA chief executive -- Michael Hervey, who said earlier this month he will resign at the end of the year, was filling the role on an interim basis -- and the governor has left five of 15 seats on the authority's board empty. Addressing LIPA after last year's Tropical Storm Irene would have gotten a review started earlier, and likely led to the conclusion that LIPA is an unworkable construct. Though that probably wouldn't have resulted in the politically resisted changes and billions in investment needed to have avoided most of the consequences of Sandy, it could have prevented the new 10-year contract with PSEG of New Jersey, set to begin in 2014, which unwisely perpetuates LIPA's current structure.

Cuomo's commission will have one arm to look at storm preparation and response, and another to review utilities and regulatory structures.

While the reports on tree-trimming, power restoration and communications may get the most attention, they shouldn't. There's no shortage of studies and reviews showing LIPA needs to do more preventive work to keep the power on in bad weather, and make it easier to restore when it fails. That the authority does a terrible job of communicating with both customers and municipal officials after disasters is so clear that LIPA leadership hasn't even bothered to contest it in the wake of Sandy.

It's the subcommittee charged with looking at structure and regulation that could actually make progress in addressing what ails LIPA. The authority is an overgrown organization, expanded far beyond its original intent, operating as a job bank for the politically connected, and insulated from oversight by the powerful connections of its people. It has demonstrated little ability to oversee National Grid well and, by failing to improve despite frequent criticism, acted as if it has little or no incentive to do so.

And, thanks to comments made last week by the governor and echoed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, there isn't much suspense in terms of what Cuomo's subcommittee will conclude. "LIPA has to end, in my opinion," Cuomo told reporters Wednesday. "I don't think you can fix LIPA. To coin an expression, I would say, 'End it, don't mend it.' It can't be fixed."

Cuomo is right. But right now, we only know what doesn't work. The path to a power company for Long Island that does work is likely to be arduous, and the decade-long contract with PSEG may be an obstacle. The best solution is almost certainly a regulated private owner, but anyone who remembers the Long Island Lighting Co.'s years as the Island's power provider knows there can be pitfalls on that path, too.

After every serious storm, we look at operational issues and how to improve them, and we should. But if the organizational structure itself doesn't make any sense, assessments of tree-trimming schedules and utility pole stockpiles are unlikely to fix it.