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By Miranda Reale
KINGSTON – Steep surges in energy costs around the Hudson Valley have hurt residents over the course of the last few months, but in recent weeks, these costs have increased to a scale impossible to ignore. As of January 2022, 1.3 million residential energy customers across the state were behind on their bills by 60 days or more.
At the beginning of the month, State Senator James Skoufis announced that the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations would look into the recent spikes in utility bills. The committee opened up a formal legislative investigation into utilities, power suppliers, and state regulators, setting the foundation for a “Know Your Utility Rights” virtual meeting last Thursday.
The Public Utility Law Project organized a presentation with State Senators representing different districts around the Hudson Valley. State Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D-38), Senator James Skoufis (D-39), Senator Pete Harckham (D-40), and Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-46), all attended to take necessary steps to protect customers from the bill surge and inform their constituents of the rights that are available to them in order to ease some of the financial burdens of current energy conditions.
The Public Utility Law Project, or, PULP, is a state-wide non profit public interest law firm with a mission to educate, advocate, and litigate on the behalf of low and fixed income utility consumers. The State Senators in attendance are working with PULP to illuminate which actions consumers can take to approach price surges and bring awareness to consumer protection. State Senator James Skoufis began the forum impassioned, explaining that working class households are suffering and in danger. He spoke of the presentation and collaboration with PULP as a plan of action. “We are taking every possible action to address this crisis. We will do whatever we possibly can to fight for our constituency as you are dealing with this outrageous, unsustainable situation,” he said.
On top of the surges and the cost of commodities, in the case of Central Hudson as PULP Executive Richard Berkley addressed, they have not been able to bill properly, causing a severe excess of disproportionate billing and possible fraudulent charges. New Yorkers already pay a disproportionate high portion of their income in utility bills, making the negotiation for the forthcoming state budget plan intent on supplying relief for residents.
The majority of the presentation was focused on New York State’s regulated utilities, electric and gas. Under current law, utility companies must provide monthly updates to the Department of Public Service. Specifically, they have to report if any one is behind in their electric or gas bill by 60 days or more. By these reports, the scale of behind bills has heightened the threat of utility termination, bringing danger to more families and households than ever. To mitigate these risks, an awareness of the current laws and regulations of utility companies are required as there are specific time rules and notices they have to follow. For example, terminations can only happen after 35 days of unpaid charges.
The presentation ended with an array of resources for those affected by the surge. Programs like HEAP, a low-income home energy assistance program, were discussed to raise awareness for financial assistance programs while the agents responsible for the current energy crisis are held accountable. Ending on a note of advocacy, Senator James Skoufis assured attendees that this is a matter of liability. “To the extent that we can hold folks accountable, we are going to continue holding feet to the fire,” he said, concluding the presentation.