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Public utility advocates see hope as city looks at ways to lower residents' energy bills

Emily Hunt
for WXXI News

Proponents of a public takeover of RG&E see a glimmer of hope in City Council’s decision to set aside money to study ways to lower the environmental and financial impact of energy procurement.

The study was among seven bills totaling $3 million in generally defined initiatives that targeted everything from affordable housing to staffing equity.

“City Council’s resolution leaves the door open to a public utility study being commissioned at the city-level, which is a step forward in our movement for a locally owned, affordable, and reliable public utility run by local union workers,” said Mohini Sharma, organizing director for Metro Justice, in a statement.

The money was previously dedicated to such a study that would have looked at the feasibility of replacing Rochester Gas & Electric with a public utility. That measure was passed in June of last year but came with a caveat that that the Monroe County Legislature also had to chip in $1 million, which the Legislature didn’t do.

In the City Council redux, the bill language states that the focus will be on how the city can help residents lower their energy costs and carbon footprint. While not specifically dedicated to a public utility study, the funds can be used for that purpose.

The package of seven bills are what’s known as notices of budgetary intent, a type of legislation that was uncommon before last year. Rather than unspent funds being reverted into a fund balance, the bills allow for Council to earmark remaining funds for specific projects or areas of focus. The bills are intentionally vague, allowing for flexibility in how the funds are used.

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For example, a $1 million allocation for affordable housing is not pinned to any singular initiative, but rather requests the “mayor develop a plan to spend the funds with the goals of reducing homelessness, increasing affordable housing options, and providing equitable access to home ownership opportunities.”

The seven bills include:

  • $1 million for affordable housing and housing equity 
  • $400,000 for community-based neighborhood improvement 
  • $100,000 for youth sports and park maintenance 
  • $300,000 for elderly services 
  • $200,000 for “emerging initiatives,” including refugee services and the cannabis industry 
  • A potential $500,000 for training and analysis of the city’s equitable treatment of staff 
  • $500,000 to explore lowering energy costs for Rochesterians 

The bill for equity training and analysis sparked controversy on City Council. That bill, introduced by Councilmembers Mary Lupien, Kim Smith, Stanley Martin, and Willie Lightfoot, was bundled with the creation of a “Women’s and Civil Rights Caucus” on Council.
Councilmember LaShay Harris had objected to both City Council allocating the funds to the study, as well as the creation of a caucus that would be made up of all Councilmembers except Mitch Gruber, who is the only white man on Council.

“In the way this was written, it would exclude one of our members,” Harris said. “I think that is wrong and I do not want to do that.”

Harris also said she believed any analysis of staff had to be done through the administration. A heavily amended version of the bill did pass narrowly, with the four who introduced the original bill voting no. The amended bill removed a specific dollar amount for the study, and simply calls for the city’s human resources department to use funds “as needed.”

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.