Robert Rashkes, of West Orange, is a member of AARP New Jersey’s utility watchdogs, who volunteer to monitor utility issues in the state. Photo by Elias Williams

By Christina Hernandez Sherwood

When Superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey in October 2012 and power was out for a week in West Orange, Robert Rashkes depended on his copper wire landline phone service to get automated updates from the mayor. Rashkes, 58, a retired internal auditor, relayed those updates to neighbors whose fiber optic landline service went out with the electricity.

“It showed us the importance of the copper wire,” Rashkes said.

Two months later, he joined the inaugural class of AARP New Jersey’s Utility Watchdog Team, a group of AARP members who volunteer to monitor utility issues in the state. Since then, Rashkes and the watchdogs have opposed rate hikes, pushed for more transparency among third-party energy suppliers and advocated for ongoing maintenance of the copper wire infrastructure for landlines.

“The utilities are very good at using the system to get what they want, and the average consumer doesn’t have a clue what’s going on,” Rashkes said. “When you come together with AARP, you have a forum where everyone can advocate together.”

Now topping 100 volunteers, New Jersey’s utility watchdogs work to ensure that AARP members’ voices are heard, said Evelyn Liebman, AARP New Jersey associate state director for advocacy. “Our watchdogs make sure that our members know that unless we speak up now, we’re going to pay more later,” she said.

Real people having impact
Experience in technical or financial issues helps, but is not essential to become a watchdog. Volunteers participate in regional trainings and briefings, share information from the quarterly watchdog newsletter and attend public utility meetings and legislative hearings, Liebman said.

Last year, the watchdogs were mobilized around the issue of failing telephone service in South Jersey. Hearings on the issue by the Board of Public Utilities, which oversees regulated utilities, were attended by hundreds, with dozens testifying.

“Our watchdogs bring real, personal stories to our decision makers,” Liebman said, “and they really have an impact.”

When New Jersey Natural Gas—which serves Monmouth, Ocean and parts of four other counties—requested a 24 percent rate hike last year, the watchdogs attended hearings and called the BPU to oppose the proposal. The utility eventually settled for a 7.4 percent increase.

“The watchdogs come out and they show everyone that there are real people behind what we do,” said Stefanie A. Brand, director of the Division of Rate Counsel, an independent state agency that represents ratepayers.

Ken Lindhorst, 75, of Summit, was responsible for regulatory issues at AT&T before he retired and became the chief utilities advocate for AARP New Jersey. He predicted that one of the biggest issues the watchdogs will face this year is that companies that own nuclear plants will likely request additional subsidies from ratepayers.

Other areas include expected rate increase requests from several utilities and an ongoing push by utilities to require customers to guarantee the companies a certain amount of income—decoupling energy use from rates paid.

Members interested in joining the Utility Watchdog Team can go to bit.ly/WatchdogSignup.

Christina Hernandez Sherwood is a writer living in Collingswood, N.J.

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