County exec: shareholders not ratepayers should pay

Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger has called for the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) to make shareholders of the utility Fortis/Central Hudson pay for a program designed to provide relief to low-income people who are struggling with unpaid utility bills. The way things are set up now, those costs will be paid for by ratepayers of the utility.

Metzger called for planned debt relief for moderate-income customers and small businesses to be funded entirely by shareholders, with no costs passed on to what she described as already overburdened ratepayers suffering from the company’s billing fiasco.

Central Hudson switched to a new billing system in September 2021, and according to an investigation was aware of problems with the system yet went ahead anyway. Some customers did not receive bills, some received incorrect bills, in some cases the company withdrew incorrect amounts from the bank accounts of customers, and more than 14% of Central Hudson’s gas and electric customers wound up in arrears.

Jen Metzger

On June 16, 2022 the Public Service Commission (PSC) authorized a statewide program to assist customers struggling with unpaid utility bills due to economic hardship caused by the pandemic. The arrears program was broken into two phases, with low-income customers participating in an existing utility Energy Assistance Program to be prioritized for utility debt relief in Phase 1. Phase 2, which is being developed now, would extend forgiveness to moderate-income households and small businesses who also struggle with significant arrears. The question of whether utility shareholders, ratepayers, or a combination of the two should pay has not yet been decided.

In her letter to the PSC, Metzger wrote: “At the same time that our residents and small businesses continue to be burdened by crushing utility and energy costs and a broken utility billing system, Fortis/Central Hudson shareholders have enjoyed uninterrupted profits and increasing dividends. The only fair and reasonable path forward is to assign shareholders the responsibility for the cost of Phase 2 relief measures.”

In Phase 1, utility customers handled most of the $3 million cost of the program, while utility shareholders paid only $200,000. Central Hudson in August 2022 added a 0.5% surcharge to cover these costs onto the bills of its customers.

“It is imperative that this relief be funded fairly and reasonably, and not increase the burden on utility customers already struggling with high energy costs,” Metzger wrote to PSC Chairman Rory Christian. “The number of customers in arrears more than doubled since 2019, while the amount of arrears nearly quadrupled. The company’s mismanagement of the roll-out of its new Customer Information and Billing System, as documented in the recent investigative report of the Department of Public Service, has only served to exacerbate financial problems for many customers already struggling to afford service. The only fair and reasonable path forward is to assign shareholders the responsibility for the cost of Phase 2 relief measures.”

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