Erik Kriss, ekriss@aarp.org, David Irwin, dirwin@aarp.org

As Potential Hike to Already Sky-High Rates Looms, Long Island AARP Members Push for Independent Utility Rate Watchdog

ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y. – With the possibility that Long Island’s power provider will seek a rate increase next year, members of New York’s most powerful voting demographic pressed State Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos and his colleagues today to back an independent watchdog to protect ratepayers from unwarranted increases in 2016 and beyond.

AARP members from Long Island, home of the highest suburban concentration of Association members in the nation – and some of the highest utility rates – gathered in front of Senator Skelos’s district office before hand-delivering a letter from AARP’s top New York official calling on the Senator and his seven GOP Island colleagues to join their counterparts in the Senate’s governing majority coalition in support of an independent utility consumer advocate.

A 2013 AARP survey found three quarters of Long Islanders support an independent utility consumer advocate, while 69% don’t think their elected officials are doing enough to fight rising energy costs.

New Yorkers pay some of the highest average residential electric rates in the United States, and Long Islanders pay among the highest rates in New York – 73 percent above the national average as of December 2013 (20.23 cents per kilowatt hour vs. the average of 11.72). Included in those prices are the utility companies’ own expenses to push rates up in the first place. AARP recently found New York’s utilities passed on to their own customers more than $43 million from 2009 through 2012  to try to increase those same customers’ rates – including more than $1.3 million to Long Islanders.

Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response recommended an independent utility consumer advocate to represent residential ratepayers (pgs 44-46).

Long Island AARP members called on their State Senators to include a key provision in the final state budget to turn the state’s modest utility intervention unit into a powerful advocate for utility consumers by giving it political independence and the authority to sue over unfair rate hikes.

“AARP is turning up the heat so Albany gets a clear message to help Long Islanders afford the heat,” said Associate New York State AARP Director Chris Widelo. “We need Senator Skelos and his colleagues from Long Island to give overburdened utility ratepayers relief.”

“We need a strong, independent utility consumer advocate in New York with the power to sue over unfair rate hikes,” said Ronald Fatoullah, Esq., AARP New York’s Executive Council member from Great Neck. “That will keep utilities and regulators honest – and rates reasonable.”

“This winter alone, some of my neighbors’ utility bills have doubled and even tripled because of the cold weather and a spike in demand,” said AARP volunteer Barbara Horn of Long Beach, a senior advocate and constituent of Senator Skelos. “We the ratepayers have virtually nobody at the table advocating for us. That needs to change – and fast. Senator Skelos, don’t leave Long Island ratepayers out in the cold!”

PSEG has passed on six straight monthly energy cost increases as cold weather has driven up demand and prices, underscoring the need for a strong voice to fight for residential ratepayers on that part of their utility bills state regulators can control: the distribution portion.

The need is urgent, with PSEG expected to file for a distribution rate increase next year and New York one of just 10 states – and by far the largest – without an independent utility consumer advocate. Other states save their ratepayers far more than their advocates cost. Connecticut, for instance, reported reducing rates by $730 million in 2012 at a cost of $3 million – a 243-1 return on investment.

“AARP’s fear is that the pending (PSEG) rate case could lead to an additional rate increase to the distribution portion of the bill, resulting in even higher overall rates for consumers who are already struggling to make ends meet,” Finkel wrote in her letter to Long Island’s Senate delegation. “We strongly believe consumers need a voice in this proceeding.”

The Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, which shares power with Republicans, has made an independent utility consumer advocate a top priority for 2014. State lawmakers and Cuomo are expected to enter homestretch negotiations soon on the final budget, which is due April 1.

AARP briefed Long Island members in Rockville Centre Monday and Lindenhurst yesterday and is planning another session for Mt. Sinai tomorrow on the Governor’s executive budget proposal.

The Association is also asking Senator Skelos and his colleagues to support $26 million in the final budget to ensure cost-effective, non-Medicaid in-home services for the elderly to all New Yorkers who need them. That would allow more New Yorkers to age with independence and dignity in their own homes – instead of expensive institutional settings, in part by alleviating stress on overburdened family caregivers who already provide the equivalent of care valued at $32 billion annually in New York.

New York ranked 48th in a national AARP survey of state support for family caregivers. But things will only get worse if the state doesn’t act, as a looming demographic shift will mean more frail elderly needing care but fewer already-stressed caregivers to provide it.

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AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, with a membership of more than 37 million, that helps people turn their goals and dreams into real possibilities, strengthens communities and fights for the issues that matter most to families such as healthcare, employment and income security, retirement planning, affordable utilities and protection from financial abuse. We advocate for individuals in the marketplace by selecting products and services of high quality and value to carry the AARP name as well as help our members obtain discounts on a wide range of products, travel, and services.  A trusted source for lifestyle tips, news and educational information, AARP produces AARP The Magazine, the world’s largest circulation magazine; AARP Bulletin; www.aarp.org; AARP TV & Radio; AARP Books; and AARP en Español, a Spanish-language website addressing the interests and needs of Hispanics. AARP does not endorse candidates for public office or make contributions to political campaigns or candidates. AARP Foundation is an affiliated charity of AARP that is working to win back opportunity for struggling Americans 50+ by being a force for change on the most serious issues they face today: housing, hunger, income and isolation. AARP has staffed offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Learn more at www.aarp.org.