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Utility rate hike request gets heated response at Rochester hearing

Utility rate hike request gets heated response at Rochester hearing

Two local power companies and the state agency that regulates them caught fire from residents attending a rate hike hearing Tuesday afternoon. 

Some people who attended the hearing held at Rochester’s City Hall by the New York State Public Service Commission were angry that Rochester Gas & Electric Corp. and the New York State Electric and Gas Corp. are raising rates again. Others claimed the PSC had failed to do its duty to protect citizens, especially those who have low incomes. And many said the utilities need to do a better job of investing in renewable energy and encouraging conservation in order to stop climate change.  

Chanting and clapping sometimes held up the hearing and the administrative judge overseeing it had to remind people of the rules. 

 The hearing Tuesday afternoon drew about 100 people and 40 who signed up to make a statement on the utilities’ proposed rate hike. A second hearing was held Tuesday evening, with more scheduled for three other venues around the state later this month. 

NYSEG is asking for increases that would result in $10.17 more for electricity and $1.05 more for gas each month for the typical residential customer. RGE is seeking an additional $2.86 for electricity and $1.56 for gas each month. Clearing line-damaging vegetation and making other investments were the main reasons behind the rate request, utility spokesmen said.  

Joseph Syta, vice president, regulatory, for utility parent company Avangrid, told the group that RGE hasn’t received approval for a rate increase since 2015, but he later added that the outcome of that rate case was that increases would come in three installments, the last of which took place in April 2018. 

Many of the people making statements said RG&E and NYSEG already charge too much just to supply the power, regardless of usage. That practice falls particularly hard on low-income customers, they said. 

“Why do our rates have to increase for RG&E to do their job?” asked Jasmine Raggler of Rochester. She said her most recent bill was $73.09 and only $14.78 was for actual electricity and gas. In four years a meter reader has never come to her home, she said, yet she pays a monthly fee for meters. She even pays 76 cents a month to cover being billed, a charge that multiplied by all of the utility’s customers means they’re taking in $3.5 million annually just to send customers their bills, she said. 

Kate Kressman-Kehoe, a filmmaker from Rochester who has focused on climate change, said, “This is a climate crisis and this is an opportunity to have an impact for decades.” She urged the utility to invest in a more resilient power grid and green energy, fix methane leaks (from natural gas) and phase out the use of fossil fuels.

Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community, said “To do no harm is reasonable,” but a rate hike will particularly harm low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color. Homeownership remains out of reach of many people of color, due to systemic racism, Underwood said, and high utility rates contribute to that.  

Utility costs, including long-term payment plans that have people paying thousands of dollars in utility bills over a decade to try to catch up are “once again a downward push on folks trying to stay afloat,” Underwood said. 

The hearing, presided over by Administrative Judge Michelle Phillips from Albany, was not structured to provide responses to the statements from ratepayers. Two PSC commissioners, James Alesi of East Rochester and Diane Burman of the Albany area, attended the hearing. Later in the day, Avangrid released a statement reiterating its reasoning for a rate increase request. 

Severe weather events, which have greatly impacted both service areas, have increased both in severity and frequency. Together, the companies experienced 165 major storms between 2012 and 2018, leading to regular customer outages. The filings seek to address this by making the investments necessary to provide customers with a more reliable and resilient electric system. Likewise, it also seeks to implement a comprehensive vegetation management program to address the impact that overgrown trees have on system reliability. More than half of RG&E and NYSEG’s combined outages are caused by trees or branches contacting wire and other electric equipment. If approved, the plans would help reduce the number of customers that experience outages and assist in expediently restoring power after a significant event,” the statement read. 

Several speakers asked the PSC to cut the utilities’ base rates, saying $28 a month is the highest in the state. They also urged the PSC to exempt households for a hike if their earnings are at 250 percent of the poverty level or lower.

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