NYSEG meeting

NYSEG hosted a public forum last week that attracted many area residents and lasted for several hours as people aired their grievances. (Photo by Casey Martin)

NYSEG has residents up in arms over some proposed rate hikes that could be coming to electric bills in the area soon, both through the regional power company and the Ithaca City School District. 

On Aug. 14, NYSEG held a public hearing to gather countywide feedback on a proposed rate increase. The BorgWarner Room at the Tompkins County Public Library was inundated with protestors ranging from county residents to numerous members of Ithaca’s Sunrise Movement. The new rate increase would increase electric delivery rates by $156.7 million for NYSEG customers, or 20.4 percent on base delivery revenues and 10.4 percent in total revenues, and annual gas delivery rates would increase by $6.3 million, or 3 percent in gas delivery revenues and 1.4 percent in total revenues. Monthly residential electric bills would increase by $10.20 and gas bills will increase by $1.03, according to a fact sheet from the New York State Public Service Commission. 

Some of the elements of the proposed rate case are to gather funds for vegetation management to reduce the number of tree-related outages, replace leaking pipes at a rate of 30 miles of pipe per year, and heat pump adoption (a common thorn in the side for NYSEG customers). Regardless, residents and county officials are vehemently against the new rate increase. During a question and answer session, many residents wondered why NYSEG has not considered having underground power lines. NYSEG officials said while underground electric lines would decrease their vegetation management costs, it would be difficult to locate problem circuits. 

The first person to speak during the public hearing was the chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, Martha Robertson. She felt the new rate increase would be detrimental to those who are already struggling to pay their current power bills. Robertson also accused NYSEG of a slow approach to repairing problem circuits, citing recent work done along Green Street that took longer than expected and some repair work being done to gas lines on South Titus Avenue. 

Other residents felt the Public Service Commission should deny the rate increase due to NYSEG’s inability to work on reducing harmful gas emissions and work to achieve New York State’s climate goals. Residents went on to comment about how NYSEG has not been cooperative with communities looking to use solar energy to power their homes. Judy Pierpont spoke on this point, saying that NYSEG needs to recognize climate change for the threat it has become. 

“It’s time for NYSEG to recognize climate disruption as the threat and challenge of our time,” Pierpont said. “In this community, we are working on cutting back on the use of fossil fuels and encourage the use of renewable energy. But we can do very little if the utility, that has power over how energy is delivered and used, is not responsive to these changing necessities. NYSEG is dragging its feet, neglecting to design policies and programs that would reign in climate-disrupting emissions. They are proceeding with a ‘business-as-usual-approach,’ incentivizing and encouraging more gas use, not less and failing to promote renewable modalities.”

Tompkins County Legislator Deborah Dawson spoke about how NYSEG needs to provide residents with safe and reliable service. She said that since New York State enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), NYSEG should be working to meet the state’s energy emissions goals. In terms of how NYSEG has been operating in providing customers with safe and reliable energy, Dawson found the utility company has been doing a poor job after attending a meeting for a project called Bright Line Ithaca. 

“It was explained to us at that meeting that the purpose of this line upgrade would be to replace six miles of optical grounding wire and three miles of conductor replacements in order to meet the standards set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission through the bulk electrical system … in 2010,” Dawson said. “And they were just getting around to it in 2019. We asked after they made this presentation, is this the first in a series of projects for Tompkins County? And we were assured that this was all they had to do to get this grid up to speed. What I see here is a pattern of deferred maintenance, which has now created an urgent need for repairs and now someone else is going to have to pay for that. I don’t see why we should be rewarding a utility with one purpose for failing to meet that purpose.” 

Dawson continued on to remark about how the vegetation maintenance is the primary reason for needing to have a rate increase, something an abundance of residents disapproved of. Other comments criticized NYSEG for not repairing obviously-failing infrastructure well. The rate case will be decided on by the Public Service Commission sometime next year. 

On Aug. 13, the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) held a public hearing about a proposed tax on utilities. Residents came out in droves to speak against the tax, with some saying that the tax shouldn’t even be under consideration. The ICSD Board will be wrestling with the decision to approve this tax but will continue gathering public opinion on how to proceed. 

The new tax is being presented as an alternative way to garner revenue for the school district. ICSD is proposing a .5 to 3 percent tax on utilities. Former board member Arthur Berkley, who served for 16 years on the ICSD board, delivered an impassioned statement about why the proposed tax is both unnecessary and creates an added burden on school district residents. 

“One-half to 3 percent was proposed with no starting percentage specified, thereby adding to the already oppressive, highest-in-the-nation total tax burden, one falling most heavily on the poor in our community for heating and lighting who are disproportionately minority, migrants, and fixed-income seniors,” Berkley said. “For these poorest residents, paying added gas, electric, and communication costs will be a considerable problem, perhaps requiring a choice between food and other care for children, or buying needed medicine for parents or other low-income adults.” 

Many residents echoed Berkley’s comments, with all stressing the effects this will have on the poorest residents within the school district. Considering the county is already shackled with a 20-percent poverty rate, interest in having a tax is minimal. Berkley went on to comment about how ICSD recently went through their budget negotiations, which made an impression on a number of residents in attendance. 

“The proposed new tax comes less than two months after the school budget vote generously approving the maximum tax increase under the cap, and the spending of $120 million for new capital projects with minimum specificity-yes the capital money is estimated to be revenue-neutral, but clearly represents a new expense for the taxpayers,” Berkley said. “Yet, the board whispered not a word to the public when they voted on the budget that a new additional tax was coming and that it would be in addition to the ICSD budget. We believe board members who vote for this new tax should be ashamed of their lack of transparency.”

While a proposed resolution, let alone a vote on the new tax isn’t in sight, statements from ICSD have indicated that if a majority can come to an agreement, a vote could be cast as early as Dec. 31, 2019.

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