NY-18 Rep. Ryan says Central Hudson needs leadership change after billing problems
Last week, New York Congressman Pat Ryan used a House of Representatives floor speech to call on the CEO of Central Hudson Gas & Electric to resign. It follows years of complaints about the utility’s billing practices. Late last year, the state Public Service Commission concluded Central Hudson could not handle complex situations, resulting in overbilling and other errors for thousands of customers. Ryan, a Democrat from the 18th district, spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus about his long battle with Central Hudson and Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.
Why did you call on the CEO of Central Hudson to resign?
It was a serious decision to escalate to this level, but I think sadly merited. It's been a year of my constituents, Hudson Valley residents getting ripped off and screwed over, I believe, by Central Hudson. And it's at this point, become a fundamental breach of trust between pretty much everybody that I talked to who's opening an electric bill and has little to no confidence that it's going to be accurate and fair. We have to figure out how to restore that trust and of course, fix the issues. And so, at this point, I believe that means we need a leader who's going to take that on who's going to take accountability for the failures, and then get to the hard work of rebuilding that trust with the community. So, it was a decision I didn't take lightly, but calling for accountability of a leader of an organization that I think has systemically failed, I believe is what's called for right now.
We obviously reached out to Central Hudson after your comments, and they said that it has been working on the billing problems and they are improving. To your mind, is that true?
Well, I think I can tell you what the sort of reality on the ground is, which is that every day, literally, we are getting calls in my office and I know many of my other colleagues and state and local government get them too, of residents that are at their absolute wits end still having issues, still not able to get through to customer service. And so, I know there's a lot of great people and employees of Central Hudson working hard to fix this. But to me, we're in this whole situation because from the very beginning, the leadership and the CEO specifically, have failed to recognize how badly they had errored in this new billing system. And so, the issues have become so broad and compounded, that it's almost impossible to untangle.
Have you heard from Mr. Freni or arranged to meet with the company at all? They also said in their statement to us that they would look forward to speaking with you.
I spoke with leadership prior to making the call, to just let them know that I would be making that call. I haven't connected with them since but certainly open to it. I think the whole purpose of this is to fix the problems, move forward and get to a place where you know, especially seniors and low-income families and families struggling right now, aren't worried that their entire bank account is going to be wiped out just by keeping their home warm. So, that's where we have to get to, which means we have to work constructively together. I just think we need a new leader who will take that accountability.
The company says in the long run nobody is going to pay over charges, they're not going to be charged more than they should have been and their bills will be settled in the end. What is the process of untangling that look like? I mean, how long are we talking about for people who have already been fighting the charges for the last several months or even years at this point?
Well, this is the problem. The fact that Central Hudson is claiming that no one will pay in the end is just absurd, because people are paying right now, to your point, and there's no trust. And at this point, I have very little trust. I’m a Central Hudson customer too, that this is going to get fixed unless there's a major change in leadership, in sort of the culture of at the top of taking this seriously. And rather than putting profits first, actually putting our customers and people first. And until that changes, I'm very concerned. I mean, they disputed this Public Service Commission Report, which was absolutely devastating and insisted that there's no long-term damage financially to customers, but it's just not the case.
Right. And just to clarify, the New York State Public Service Commission released this report in late December. So, much of what you're talking about springs from those findings. You said you're a customer of Central Hudson. Has your bill been wrong?
Not that we've been able to discern. I mean, normally, I think a lot of people, we had auto pay set up and just trusted that our bill was going to be accurate, like we do with a lot of our utilities and other bills. We actually turned off auto pay when this all started back a year ago, and have been looking closely like everybody I know. So far, I don't think we've been affected to my knowledge. But this report that you mentioned from December by the state outlined that over 30,000 people had auto pay issues totaling at least $16 million in errors spread across those customers, and that's just what we know. We believe that there's even more than that. There have been 11,000 official complaints filed online. And again, I think that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Congressman Ryan, now let me ask you about President Biden's State of the Union on Tuesday night. I assume you'll be attending, what do you hope to hear?
Yeah, I'm looking forward, this will be my first State of the Union that I'll have the incredible honor of attending in person and attending as the representative for this district. So, I'm going with the sort of the voices of all my constituents and what I've been hearing, including just last night, actually my first town hall that I held over in Beacon. So, what I'm hoping to hear, which I've also talked about as well in my campaigns and now in office. Two big imperatives. One, we have to deliver relief to folks feeling so much pressure from their utility bills, gas pumps, grocery stores, housing and health care costs. Continuing to fight to lower costs, and provide relief. And then number two, defending rights, fundamental rights and freedoms at risk from reproductive freedoms, still very much under threat, voting rights. Even just the right to clean air and water and soil with major widespread water contamination issues throughout the Hudson Valley and PFAS issues. So, I hope to hear tangible plans where we can deliver relief, defend rights and I think we'll hear that from the President. So, I'm looking forward to it.
How much of that is politically possible now that the House Republicans are in the majority?
Well, I'm still an optimist that we can deliver for folks. I actually, I think back to President Biden’s State of the Union last year, where sort of towards the end, he outlined several areas where he felt there was real room and need for bipartisan cooperation to deliver. One that was very personal to me and I know a lot of others, was legislation to provide care for veterans exposed to toxins in Iraq and Afghanistan to burn pits and other toxic exposures. So, President Biden last year said, “We need to do this, we're going to do this, put out that call to action.” And in that years’ time, we passed this landmark PACT Act legislation that allows my generation of post 911 veterans, Vietnam and other veterans to get better access to the care that they need. So, I hope we'll see more of that and I do think there are areas from veterans to infrastructure to bringing back jobs here to the US where we do agree and we can deliver.