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Local Resistance To National Grid’s Planned Rate Hike Grows

Composite Image by Dave Lucas (WAMC)

Heat or cool your home, or cut back on food and medicine? Area residents may be faced with that decision next spring.

"We certainly understand that no one wants to pay higher bills, but they do want safe and reliable power, and we also need to increase the funding that we have for customers who struggle to pay their bills each month, and the proposal that we've put forth meets both of those goals." ~ National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella.

National Grid is proposing two rate increases — a 17.5 percent increase in electric delivery rates, and a 20.5 percent increase in gas delivery rates for the average residential customer.  Capital Region State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, a Democrat from the 111th district, is outraged.    "A rate hike like this, where people are already doing things like lowering the heat to the lowest possible level, not even using air conditioning, and seeing a delivery charge that often times more than the usage charge. That's a big complaint. We started an online petition that followed a series of public comment hearings across upstate. One of them was held in Schenectady. There was significant opposition to this proposal by the residents that I represent, by the people that showed up. And it also prompted some pretty harsh criticism of the company itself. The company is showing a $2.8 billion profit, as of last year, so that is drawing questions as to why we're going now back to customers in upstate New York for infrastructure improvements."

Santabarbara notes the online petition included a phone number to the PSC, a hotline he says was overwhelmed by the number of callers trying to get their concerns heard.  The PSC responded to a request for comment by email, stating in part "We’re still in the fact/comment gathering part of a rigorous 11-month statutory review process to ensure National Grid’s rates remain just and reasonable," and   "The rate-setting process will include a detailed review and careful examination of the company’s proposal by Commission staff, as well as by other interested parties, including National Grid’s customers, and ample opportunities for public comment and public hearings."

Santabarbara:  "I've asked National Grid to withdraw the proposal. They have not done that yet. They have offered some opportunities to phase-in these increases, but at the end of the day, an increase is still an increase."

National Grid's Stella says the rate hike is all about helping people.   "We're not a company where a customer can go in and choose whether or not to buy the product or not. We must serve everyone within our service territory. And part of the way that that works is that there is a portion of the bill that goes to help customers who have trouble paying those bills on a month-to-month basis, those customers who are really struggling to pay those bills, so part of this proposal is to increase that funding so we can help more customers. Approximately 55,000 customers could be, additional customers could be helped by this."

The AARP, a vocal critic of the rate hike, has been blanketing the region with postcards urging National Grid customers to speak up.  Stella says National Grid is actually an "underearner."   "Most companies can earn whatever they can earn. National Grid has actually a cap on their earnings, because we are regulated, we're only allowed to earn up to a certain amount. Over the last 10 years we have not even earned, we have been below that cap. We continue to underearn."

Santabarbara is urging utility customers to say no to higher bills.   "You have to turn on the heat. It gets very cold here in the Northeast, and when winter comes, you have to turn on the heat, we rely on it. This is not something we can just say we don't need and we're not gonna use. We have to use it. These rate hikes, when they come, they hurt our population. It means more money out of their pockets, it means they have to make choices. AARP told me stories about people cutting their medication in half to be able to save a few bucks to be able to pay to keep the lights on and pay for their heat. Families, seniors, should not have to do that."

Santabarbara is hopeful the PSC will reject the proposal. Stella says National Grid's proposal is not the final outcome.   "There's still several months before the process is complete. All of this feedback that we're gathering in the meantime will be factored in.

The PSC's final decision is due in March 2018 with National Grid anticipating hiking rates in April.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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