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Central Hudson continues to address customer billing concerns amid rate hike request

An example of a Central Hudson bill.
WAMC Northeast Public Radio
An example of a Central Hudson bill.

Customers with Central Hudson Gas and Electric got the chance to meet face-to-face with a utility representative in Newburgh, New York last week.

New York State Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson, a Democrat representing the 104th District, says he sponsored the event at the Newburgh Free Library on Grand Street after receiving complaints from constituents struggling to solve their billing issues over the phone. He says the customers he’s spoken to have either not been able to get through Central Hudson’s automation system to reach a live person, or they’ve had to call multiple times, getting a different representative each time.

This way, he figures both sides can avoid miscommunication and focus on the matter at hand.

“We’re dealing with real lives here," says Jacobson. "People are expecting a $300 bill that gets taken out of their checking account, and all of a sudden, they’re getting a bill for $3,000 or $30,000. Checks are bouncing. It’s terrible.”

Jacobson says ratepayers have been complaining of billing errors by Central Hudson, from overbilling to missing bills, for more than two years. An investigation by the state Public Service Commission concluded last year that a new billing system installed by Central Hudson could not handle complex situations, resulting in various errors for thousands of customers.

Jerry Nappi, the director of public affairs for the utility, maintains most of those mistakes have been resolved. He says the metrics on billing discrepancies have roughly returned to where they were with the old system – so there are still problems here and there, but only a “few issues” remain. In his view, Tuesday’s meeting provided an opportunity to help customers navigate the new system, and understand how their invoices are calculated.

“Customers really appreciate the opportunity to meet our service representatives face-to-face, rather than over the phone," he notes. "And we can show them on the computer screen their bill, explain the components of a bill to them, answer any questions they have, clarify the billing the process, and help customers who’ve had challenges.”

The utility has said it spent nearly $90 million overhauling its customer information system, and customers will be made whole in the end. Earlier this year, Central Hudson agreed to pay for an independent monitor to determine whether efforts to fix the system have been effective.

Meantime, the company has proposed a 16 and 19 percent hike for electric and gas delivery, respectively, beginning in July 2024. In its one-year rate plan submitted to the Commission, Central Hudson cites customer arrears, infrastructure improvements, new stipulations from New York’s climate laws, and the expected move from bi-monthly to monthly meter readings for the increase.

During the Commission’s fourth virtual hearing on the matter Wednesday, Liliana Maloney, a Central Hudson customer from Poughkeepsie, urged the body to reject the request, citing what she feels are already high rates and concerns about her most recent bill.

"This last month has been significantly cooler, and as a result, I have used my air conditioner and other appliances less, and consumed way less electricity," she explains. "And yet I was charged twice as much, with any attempts at contacting Central Hudson being pointless, as I was never able to get into contact and learn why this huge disparity was going on."

Multiple Democratic lawmakers, including Assemblymembers Jacobson, Didi Barrett and Sarahana Shrestha, as well as Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger, have criticized the rate hike request. Democratic State Senators James Skoufis and Michelle Hinchey have both sent letters to the Commission asking the body to reject the plan.

Jacobson says he and Hinchey have sponsored legislation that would restrict when a utility can rely on estimated meter reads for its billing – Central Hudson has, recently, used estimated billing every other month, but says it is transitioning to monthly meter reads. Jacobson says another bill would prevent utilities from back-billing if they are over two months late to deliver an invoice.

“They need an incentive. The utilities need an incentive to do what they’re supposed to under the law," says Jacobson.

Central Hudson’s Nappi says the utility has been partnering with local representatives to put on one-on-one customer service sessions throughout its coverage area for the past several months, with more to come in October. Jacobson says he personally plans to sponsor an event in Poughkeepsie in the near future.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."