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New York bill would ‘level the playing field’ for utility customers

Groups advocating for older New Yorkers say a bill passed by the New York State Senate would help level the playing field for utility customers.

Currently, when utilities go to the New York Public Service Commission to request a rate hike, they can apply to be reimbursed for items like expert witness fees and other costs associated with the proceedings.

Bill Ferris, state legislative representative for AARP New York, said the legislation would give the same option to groups of ratepayers or nonprofits challenging rate increases.

“Ratepayers were paying the business expenses of utilities to raise their own rates,” Ferris pointed out. “Now, we’re leveling the playing field, making sure that ratepayers can get reimbursed for their rates at the table at the Public Service Commission, to protect themselves.”

Ferris noted especially during the pandemic, more New Yorkers over 50 have reported struggling to pay their utility bills. According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, nearly 20% of New Yorkers said they’ve been unable to pay an energy bill in full in the last 12 months. The legislation is now in the State Assembly.

Ferris added as the summer months approach, people are concerned about paying to cool their homes, and being able to heat them in winter is just as important.

“It’s very important to keep the lights on, so to speak,” Ferris emphasized. “This legislation is designed to help people have more of a voice in Albany when utilities come in and try to raise the rates. We want to have as much consumer/ratepayer representation at the negotiation table.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced $15 million will be made available through the Home Energy Assistance Program to help low-income households without air conditioning cool their homes this summer.

While it previously was available only for those with medical conditions exacerbated by extreme heat, eligibility has been expanded to all income-eligible New Yorkers. Applications are open until either the end of August or when funds run out.