AREA NEWSThe Examiner

Utilities Feel Wrath of Officials, Public at Hearing

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The task force evaluating the performance of the state’s utilities following Hurricane Sandy listened to withering criticisms from elected officials and residents regarding communication and preparation last week during its first public hearing in Westchester.

The Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response, formed by Governor Andrew Cuomo shortly after the hurricane ravaged the region, heard close to 20 state and municipal officials from Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties and representatives of non-government organizations appeal for harsher consequences during the more than two-hour hearing on January 24 at SUNY Purchase.

Con Edison, the primary energy company powering Westchester, took the brunt of the criticism. Lack of communication with customers and local governments and slow response in the storm’s aftermath were the two themes raised repeatedly throughout the evening.

CountyLegislator MaryJane Shimsky (D-Dobbs Ferry) pointed to inadequate labor supply, organization and communication. With Con Edison relying too heavily on outside utilities from “thousands of miles away,” it led to slow response time for restoration, she said.

Finding local contract employees of relevant trades or retired line workers would have been sounder options, said Shimsky, who charged that the utility’s response was improvised following the storm. There were also no channels of communication established or executed leading to inaccurate projections of when power would be restored in certain areas.

For better results after the next major storm, a “coherent system for disseminating and receiving accurate information, both technological and interpersonal must be planned now,” Shimsky said.

Assemblyman David Buchwald (D-White Plains) called Con Edison’s response “unacceptable.” Like many other speakers, Buchwald cited substandard communication from the utility as the most serious flaw in its performance. In some cases, Con Edison declared a neighborhood had its power restored but that information didn’t apply to all customers, he said. Power companies’ websites also were incapable of providing updated and accurate information.

“A lack of communication is not because of a lack of expense,” Buchwald said. “It’s because of a lack of prioritizing the importance of that issue.”

Cortlandt Supervisor Linda Puglisi recommended during her testimony that Con Edison should be divided into three smaller companies, which she said would lead to improved efficiency. Puglisi said she envisions three separate companies each serving New York City, Westchester and RocklandCounty. The Public Service Commission (PSC) has the authority to force such a breakup, she said.

“It’s too big, break it up,” Puglisi said following the hearing. “Have smaller companies so they can address the needs of a smaller area.”

The Moreland Commission, which has now held six hearings throughout the state, convened similar forums most recently on January 17 in the Rockaways and on January 23 in Staten Island. There will still be several hearings before it issues a full report, but elected officials are encouraged steps will be taken to improve service and response.

A January 7 interim report stated that the PSC must strengthen its oversight over the utilities, including levying heavier fines for poor performance. Under the current law, the PSC can hit companies with daily fines of up to $100,000, but the interim report calls for legislative action to revise that to .02 percent of the utility’s revenue. Currently, that would cost Con Edison $2 million a day.

The burden of evidence to fine the utilities would also be lessened. It would depend on proof reasonable to a business standard.

“Their efforts to look at forcing the utilities to do more for their customers and making sure that the Public Service Commission actually serves as an effective watchdog to ensure that that happens,” Shimsky said of the Moreland Commission. “It looks as if they’re really beginning to cover all the bases.”

“We’re definitely at a point with these utilities where government really has to hold their feet to the fire,” she added.

There were no representatives from Con Edison and New York State Electric & Gas to speak at the hearing.
























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