Council committee holds hearing on utility defender legislation
The new office would advocate for New Yorkers struggling with utility companies, but some question whether another office is needed. On June 30, 2022, the City Council’s Consumer and Worker Protection Committee held a monitoring hearing to discuss recent utility and Int. 372-2022, a bill that would create an Office of the Public Service Advocate within the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP). The bill is sponsored by City Council President Adrienne Adams.
The proposed Office of the Utility Advocate would create a website, email address and phone number that consumers could contact and advocate for those consumers in public hearings, including in rate hike cases. The Bureau would also conduct outreach, provide educational materials to the public about its public services, and assist customers in obtaining payment assistance. The Office Manager would also consult with 311 and other relevant city agencies. If the bill is passed, the new office will begin operations on September 1, 2023.
The oversight hearing began with an opening statement from Marjorie Velazquez, council member and chair of the committee, who represents District 13 in the Bronx. According to Velazquez, New Yorkers have racked up $1 billion in utility arrears with Con Edison, the city’s main electricity and gas supplier, since the pandemic began. A pandemic moratorium on utility rate increases ended in December 2021; Con Edison increased its prices in January 2022 and a further increase of 11.5% is expected this summer.
Testimony of the municipal agency
The committee first interviewed Steven Ettannani, executive director of external affairs at DCWP, and Seth Berkman, energy policy adviser in the mayor’s office for climate and environmental justice. Berkman noted Mayor Eric Adams’ interest in the Committee’s proposed legislation, saying “the administration welcomes this meeting.”
Ettannani and Berkman explained that under applicable state and local laws, the New York State Department of Public Service is the primary handler of public service complaints in New York State. The Public Service Department handles customer complaints with the state Bureau of Consumer Services, handling each within 14 days. They also oversee utility pricing cases, the formal process by which companies like Con Edison determine how much they should charge customers.
Asked about the number of customer complaints resulting from Con Edison’s January 2022 rate increase, Ettannani said the DCWP does not have that data because complaints are handled through 311 citywide and by the Commission. civil service at the state level. As such, DCWP has no inherent jurisdiction over 311 utility complaints that land there in error.
According to city agency officials, the DCWP already offers financial advice through the Office of Financial Empowerment. Consumers who may still need help may qualify for programs through the Human Resources Administration, which also conducts outreach in multiple languages. Utility companies are already required by the state to meet rate increases, and Ettannani shares DCWP’s concern that an office of the utility attorney would create another layer of bureaucracy for consumers.
Testimony of Con Edison
The Committee then heard from representatives from Con Edison, Kyle Kimball, Vice President of Government, Regional and Community Affairs, and Kerri-Ann Kirschbaum, Director of State Regulatory Affairs. They explained that the reasons for the January price increases were twofold.
First, rising winter energy costs caused an initial price hike, and Con Edison sent a notice in the Fall 2021 bills predicting this increase. Kimball shared that the notice was posted on social media, as a press release, and as a separate document in customer billing statements, as the state’s Civil Service Commission heavily regulates content. included in utility bills. Several council members, including Amanda Farias of District 18 and Shekar Krishnan of District 25, expressed concern that this notice still seemed inadequate.
After the first increase, natural gas prices skyrocketed again due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This aspect was not mentioned in customer bills, as natural gas prices are not easily predictable, and there was no January 2022 explanation for either reason why bills were higher. . Kimball defended Con Edison by noting that everyone is measured on different cycles and utility prices are difficult to predict. Therefore, the company cannot easily send specific emails to customers, but general emails would be largely inaccurate.
Lawyers and public testimony
Following this testimony, the Committee heard from three speakers from the Public Utility Law Project (PULP). Laurie Wheelock described an influx of Con Edison cases beginning Feb. 7, 2022, with two Brooklyn elected officials calling PULP that day in concern. While PULP encourages customers to pay what they can and contact DPS directly, Wheelock expressed concern about energy companies’ poor communication with customers. She also alerted the Committee to the current Con Edison rate case, in which Con Edison is asking the state to allow another rate increase. Although case volume at PULP has declined since February, customers are still concerned about utility rates. Wheelock also expressed concern about the communication that existed for the summer raises, saying “just a little more messaging would be extremely helpful.”
William Yates added that according to the State Civil Service Commission, the cost of public services should represent only 6% of low incomes. This percentage is commonly referred to as the energy load and varies widely from audience to audience. Currently, the energy load for low-income people in the city is 8.9%, which is significantly higher than the recommended amount.
Ian Donaldson noted that PULP is generally in favor of the Utility Solicitor Bill, as the assistance of another solicitor would be “a very welcome addition” for PULP, but noted that under the current wording of the bill, the responsibilities of the office are too broad.
PULP’s suggestions to City Council included helping New Yorkers learn about programs like Con Edison’s rebates through self-certification, and that eligibility for utility assistance should be available online. They also encouraged the Commission to submit comments in Con Edison’s ongoing rate case.
A few additional members of the public testified, with differing opinions on the bill. AARP New York’s James O’Neal voiced his support, saying “that’s what our members and seniors want” after being hit hard by the pandemic. Briana Carbajal of WeACT Environmental Justice also supported the bill, but would like it to guarantee language access, funding and staffing for the new office. On the other hand, Adira Siman of Partnership for NYC opposed the bill, echoing concerns about additional bureaucracy and the existence of current alternatives to protect consumers.
The Consumer and Worker Protection Committee will vote on the Utility Advocate Bill on Wednesday, July 13e.
By: strong cassidy (Cassidy is an intern at CityLaw and a student at New York Law School, class of 2024.)
CC: Consumer and Worker Protection Commission (Monitoring Hearing, Int. 372-2022, June 30, 2022.)