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Rochester mayor, council members call on state to fund public utility study

People march calling for affordable, green power
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Demonstrators take to Rochester streets to demand reform at RG&E.

Mayor Malik Evans and the Rochester City Council are calling on state utilities regulators to investigate Rochester Gas & Electric’s “commitment to Rochester.”

They’re also asking the state to fund a study of what it would take to replace Rochester Gas & Electric with a public utility.

The demand follows months of public outcry from activists and residents regarding billing issues and erratic customer service. The advocacy group Metro Justice has/ called for the city to put up $500,000 towards the study, which would determine whether the city of Rochester could cut ties with RG&E and build a public utility. The group also called on the Monroe County Legislature to allocate $1 million for the study.

The letter sent Friday to the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in New York, was signed by Evans and all nine members of City Council.

“Our community is being failed by RG&E,” Evans said, in the letter. “Please recognize that we are in a crisis. This frustration is not fleeting — RG&E has been divesting in our community for a long time. We need the PSC’s assistance and expertise to review their performance and to consider funding a study into moving away from RG&E in the near future.”

Over the past couple months, residents have flooded meetings of City Council and the Monroe County Legislature and complained about poor customer service and bills with unexpectedly high charges, some reaching a few thousand dollars.

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The letter also supports the prospect of a public utility, citing the 1998 dissolution of the Long Island Lighting Company, which was replaced by the public Long Island Power Authority.

“We are compelled by the idea of regaining local control of our public utility, as RG&E's ownership and interests are now international,” the letter reads. “Yet, we understand this is bigger than the City of Rochester, since RG&E is failing in nine counties in our region. We believe that NYS and the PSC should be at the center of these discussions, and should ultimately fund a study to take over and improve RG&E's operations.”

Mohini Sharma, Metro Justice’s lead organizer, had previously criticized Evans for not moving aggressively enough against RG&E’s business practices and not embracing a public takeover.

In a written statement, Sharma said it’s time for the city and county to step up and fund the study.

“The RG&E crisis has gone on for too long already,” Sharma said. “The bottom line is that Rochester and Monroe County need to fund and commission a study for an affordable, local, reliable, and accountable utility no later than the spring,” Sharma said. “Over several months, hundreds of Rochester city and Monroe County constituents have voiced that this is a regional issue, with a regional process in New York State law.”

Last week, County Executive Adam Bello submitted a letter to the PSC condemning RG&E’s proposed rate hike, which requests a 20 percent rate hike for natural gas delivery and a 19 percent increase in electric delivery rates.

Bello also requested the company refund any late fees and plan better for the future to avoid inaccurate billing, but did not call on the PSC to fund a public utility study.

“It is certainly not just and reasonable at this time and would compound the strain from the already escalating electricity and gas supply commodity costs,” Bello wrote in his letter to the PSC. “The impact of inflation, challenges of the pandemic, and the company’s lack of reasonable service make this an impossible request.”

Bello also noted that RG&E has been profitable and has shrunk its workforce..

In response, RG&E released a statement defending the request to increase its delivery rates, stating the added revenue would help increase the quality of service to customers.

"(New York State Electric & Gas) and RG&E’s proposed plan will enable much needed investment in the companies’ infrastructure, provide for a better customer experience, and provide benefits for the companies’ most vulnerable customers" read the statement.

RG&E is a subsidiary of Connecticut-based Avangrid, which is in turn a subsidiary of Bilbao, Spain-based Iberdrola. Proponents of a public utility believe a locally-owned power provider would be more accountable to the will of its customers and would not direct the proceeds of its operations out of the community.

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.
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