Lawmakers renew call for independent statewide utility consumer advocate

Legislation to create a statewide Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate has been vetoed twice by the Governor’s Office.
Photo Marc A. Hermann / MTA

As reports of spiking energy bills from Con Edison continue to come in throughout New York, a group of state lawmakers are renewing their push for the creation of a new, statewide Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate.

letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul asking to work together on strengthening New York state’s ability to directly advocate for consumers, was sent by Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Riverdale Democrat, and state Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, who are the two main sponsors of legislation to create such an office.

“As you know, a significant number of utility consumers in New York have reported billing increases on the scale of 30-100% higher during the January period,” the letter says. “In addition to this billing spike, Con Edison has also been aggressively pushing their smart meter installations, charging utility consumers $100 per month if they do not have a smart meter — despite an ongoing pandemic, uncertain vaccination status of Con Edison workers, and technical challenges in certain buildings and apartments that have prevented the installation of smart meters.”

Proposed legislation to create such an office has been vetoed twice, in 2019 by then Gov. Andrew Cuomo and by Hochul in 2021, with both veto memos citing redundant or duplicative roles between the proposed Utility Consumer Advocate and the Department of Public Service’s role in consumer advocacy. However, consumer experiences with the Public Service Commission in response to the recent bill spikes from Con Edison have offered a different perspective.

In multiple responses to utility consumer complaints about Con Edison bill spikes, the Department of Public Service offered a “brief explanation” and directed consumers to assistance programs or deferred payment agreements.

“I support the intent of this legislation as the protection of residential consumers is a fundamental priority my administration shares with the sponsors of this bill,” Hochul said in her 2021 veto memo. “However, this bill would not accomplish anything in furtherance of that goal. Instead, it would establish a superfluous construct that is duplicative of existing state programs and services, which serve to protect residential customers, at significant cost.

“Fundamentally, enactment of this legislation would not expand current consumer protections available to utility customers in New York, but would instead expend significant state resources to establish a new and redundant state entity. Accordingly, I am constrained to veto this bill.”

The vetoed legislation is being reintroduced this year, with lawmakers hopeful that the governor will engage in dialogue about how to address concerns about redundancy between the proposed Utility Consumer Advocate and existing offices.

“If one thing is clear after the debacle that utility consumers have experienced with Con Edison’s extreme bills, our state does not have sufficient representation of consumer voices in our oversight of utility companies,” Dinowitz said. “The reality is that the Department of Public Service is not intended to advocate for the sole interests of utility consumers — their job is to focus on the whole system, which by its nature means that they have to also represent the interests of utility companies. A new, independent Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate would provide this dedicated voice for consumers, and it would be insulated from the political preferences of utility companies and their lobbyists. I am hopeful that … we can finally reach a consensus on how to create an office that more than forty other states already have in place.”

Reach Jason Cohen at [email protected] or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

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