Utility Company Shutoffs Soaring Across New York as Residents Struggle with Sky-High Energy Bills

53,000 Consumers Disconnected So Far in '14 and Many More Worried - But Utility Industry is Lobbying in Albany to Kill Bill to Change the Game

Jun 12, 2014, 06:00 ET from AARP New York State

NEW YORK, June 12, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The fallout from the long winter is far from over, as more than 53,000 New Yorkers across the state have seen their utilities shut off because of not being able to afford their sky-high energy bills. It's a harsh reality that's settling in with more and more households across the state, according to a startling new analysis by AARP and New York's Public Utility Law Project  (PULP) out today.

It gets worse; from Con Edison to Rochester Gas & Electric, New York customers of all state-investor owned utilities are behind in their bills by a whopping $740 million.  The situation is the worst it's been in the last decade, according to a PULP report, with the highest number of New Yorkers receiving termination notices since at least 2005 and New Yorkers owing the amount on their utility bills since then as well.

But utility companies are fighting to keep the status quo as they maneuver in Albany to defeat a measure to change the game.

Disconnects by New York utility company since the beginning of the year:

In the halls of the state Capitol, the utility industry is  lobbying  to kill AARP-backed legislation (S4550B/A6239B)  that would level the playing field by creating an independent utility consumer advocate office - a watchdog - to represent the interests of consumers when utility companies press for rate hikes. 

The legislation passed the State Assembly last month in a wide, bi-partisan vote and is now being held up by the State Senate’s Republican leadership. The bill has the full support of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, which shares power with the GOP.    

A recent AARP survey shows that from Buffalo to Syracuse, Plattsburgh to Poughkeepsie and Manhattan to Montauk, most New Yorkers 50 and older rate the strain of paying their heating bills this winter as greater than that of paying their mortgages, rent or property taxes.

"This is very troubling, and utility companies are pushing with everything they've got to prevent the playing field from being leveled so residential consumers can have a fighting chance against unfair rate hikes. The Senate Conference led by Senator Skelos should not listen to international energy companies but rather to the needs and concerns of the seven million New York ratepayers," said Beth Finkel, State Director for AARP in New York. "We know New Yorkers are struggling to pay some of the nation's highest electric bills, and this winter dealt a devastating blow to their household budgets. Now we are seeing New York's broken utility game play out in full." 

In fact, a recent AARP report shows New York utility companies spend more than $10 million a year to press for rate increases – then pass those expenses on to the very customers whose rates they're trying to raise

"Many customers are on payment plans, paying off prior arrears from bills they could not afford. When new bills jump due to the volatile prices favored by the PSC, customers fall behind again and miss the due date for their current bill plus the installment payment on old arrears.  The utility is then allowed to demand all past due amounts, demand late fees, and shut service off as a collection measure.  This creates impossible situations, hardships and often hazardous conditions when less safe forms of energy are used," said Gerald Norlander, Executive Director for PULP.  "More can and should be done by utilities to make bills more stable and affordable to low income customers and to minimize service interruption for bill collection purposes."

"If state lawmakers are listening to their constituents, and not the well-heeled utility industry lobbyists, then passing a utility watchdog in New York is just plain common sense," added Finkel.  "There are only two things standing between New Yorkers and an independent watchdog to fight more rate increases: the utility industry itself and some key leaders in the Senate - who haven't allowed a vote on the bill."

New Yorkers pay the highest average residential electric rates in the continental United States, nearly twice the national average according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. New York is one of only a handful of states, and by far the largest, without an independent advocate for its utility consumers. AARP says that's no coincidence.

Neighboring Connecticut's independent utility consumer advocate reported saving ratepayers $730 million in 2012 at a cost of $3 million – a 243-1 return on investment. California's advocate reported a 153-1 return. Across the United States, utility consumer advocates save Americans billions of dollars a year. AARP says New York should get on board.

Follow us on Twitter:  @AARPNY and Facebook: AARP New York

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.

Photo - http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20140611/117251

SOURCE AARP New York State