State Sen. Skoufis leads probe into New York utilities' pricing surge

Originally published in LoHud

Central Hudson customer and New Windsor resident Vivian Milczarski speaks outside her home on March 4, 2022

Steep hikes in energy costs have hurt residents around the Hudson Valley recently, and the state Senate is now eyeing the companies dishing out those high bills.

State Sen. James Skoufis on Friday announced the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, which he chairs, will be looking into the recent spike in utility bills.

Skoufis, a Cornwall Democrat who represents the 39th state Senate district, made the announcement on the front lawn of Vivian Milczarski's home in New Windsor, whom he said is just one of the thousands of victims of those higher bills.

Milczarski received a bill from Central Hudson in December that was 10 times her normal bill. She said when she first called Central Hudson to complain that her bill must be in error in December, a person she spoke to agreed, and she was promised an adjusted bill.

But instead of an adjusted bill, she received a series of four bills over a six-day period in late December, each one higher than the one before, with the last one raising her monthly charge from about $1,900 to over $2,600.

Milczarski said nothing had changed in the way she used electricity to justify such an increase.

"Virtually nothing changed in my lifestyle," she said.

Her current bill, due later this month, is about $1,400.

Skoufis said that still seems too high for that neighborhood on Walnut Street, where he held his news conference.

"Our office has heard from countless constituents with similar stories," Skoufis said.

Referring to Milczarski's neighbors, Skoufis observed, "This is a working class neighborhood. For people like Vivian, or seniors on fixed incomes, these bills are unsustainable."

While much of the criticism at the news conference was leveled at Central Hudson, which is the local energy provider for that area, Skoufis said his investigation will focus on all electricity providers across the state.

While Skoufis hopes that regulatory agencies like the state Public Service Commission also will do their part to lower electricity rates, his committee is not waiting for them.

Skoufis said his committee will begin its probe by requesting documents from the utility companies, under threat of subpoena, and give them a few weeks to provide them.

The investigation could include a public hearing in Albany at some point.

When the investigation is concluded, the committee will recommend changes, including both legislative and regulatory steps to be taken.

Skoufis also was joined at his news conference by Ian Donaldson of the Public Utility Law Project of New York, which provides education, advocacy and litigation services to low-income residents having difficulty with electric bills. He said about four million people, or one of every five New Yorkers, are behind on their utility bills.

Donaldson recommended if you are in that situation, rather than not paying anything, you should "pay what you can to show (the utility) you are trying."

Utility companies' rates came into sharp focus when many customers received monthly bills that in some cases tripled the cost of supplying electricity.

Experts said the increases were caused by a combination of a cold December and January, more demand for power, and a reliance on electricity generated by plants that burn natural gas, which is also seeing cost spikes.

Also, state policies promoting renewable energy from wind, solar and hydro power sources have yet to replace the 2,000 megawatts of power generated by the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

That plant, in the Westchester County village of Buchanan, generated about 25% of the metropolitan region's electricity needs until it closed last year.

The state regulates the delivery of electricity through the power grid by Central Hudson, Con Edison and other utilities, but they must purchase that electricity from power suppliers, who are unregulated.

Con Edison, the state's largest public utility, proposed last month that it get back into the business of producing power.

Con Edison spokesman Allan Drury said they are taking steps to reduce the impact of higher costs on customers.

"While supply costs and weather-related increases in energy use are outside of our control, we do control our billing process and are looking to mitigate future supply cost volatility for our customers," Drury said. "We are reviewing all of our practices that affect customer supply costs, including our energy-buying practices, the tools we use to reduce supply price volatility, the way we communicate changes in supply prices, and our programs to help customers who have fallen behind on their bills."

Central Hudson spokesman Joseph Jenkins said that in addition to cold weather and higher demand, a recovering economy and a constrained domestic pipeline are also responsible for higher market prices for electricity and natural gas.

And he said the company did in fact tell consumers and others there might be price increases this winter.

"We began reaching out to customers, elected officials and community leaders last fall regarding the potential for winter cost increases," which he said were projected by the U.S. Department of Energy. "We also provided customers with information on how to conserve energy during winter weather."

Jenkins said customers are advised of an optional program which divides households' annual average electricity costs into 12 equal payments. They also are offering no-cost and interest-free extended payment options.

Customers on fixed incomes can qualify for the Extra Security Plan, which offers an extended billing due date, and the Good Neighbor Fund, a customer-supported fund that provides last-resort grants to families who have exhausted all other assistance options.

Jenkins noted that since the pandemic began in 2020, Central Hudson has waived late fees and not suspended anyone's utility service.

Orange and Rockland Utilities spokesman Mike Donovan offered the following statement: "O&R is continuing to leverage its power supply buying methods and hedges to mitigate the risk of severe energy price volatility; strengthen its communications to customers regarding anticipated bill increases due to rising energy costs; and supplement its outreach and education efforts to promote consumer payment assistance plans and further develop programs to reduce energy usage." 

New York State Electric and Gas, which also serves large numbers of customers in New York's seven southeastern counties, did not respond to a request for comment.

Skoufis said his investigation will determine whether the utilities did all they could for consumers. And it will address these questions, among others:

"Were utilities using this crisis as an opportunity to profiteer? Were the suppliers using this crisis as an opportunity to profiteer?"