Consumers have rights when dealing with threats of service shutoffs from utilities like electric and gas companies, but most New Yorkers don’t know about those rights, according to Brooklyn lawmakers who are now on a quest to educate the public.
Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, Councilmember Mark Treyger and state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery are among the lawmakers working with the Public Utility Law Project on the educational outreach effort.
On Aug. 5 nearly two dozen staff members of several elected officials in Brooklyn and Staten Island took part in a seminar designed to familiarize them with the basics of the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, a law enacted by the state legislature in 1981 to protect consumers.
The staff members also learned about the rules and practices of the state’s Public Service Commission. The goal of the session was to give the staff members information to enable them to assist constituents doing battle with the utilities, according to Richard Berkley, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project.
“During New York City’s broiling hot summers and the unusually cold winters we have been suffering from recently, electric and gas bills spike, and for months afterward low-income and fixed-income New Yorkers, such as seniors, the disabled and far too many veterans, must scramble to pay their bills and avert shutoffs,” Berkley said.
The Public Utility Law Project is a nonprofit organization that advocates for universal service, affordability and customer protections.
New Yorkers pay the highest electricity rates in the country, according to the Public Utility Law Project.
“Those who are the most adversely affected from these high bills are low-income households,” Lentol (D-North Brooklyn) said. “The rights of individuals disputing their utility bills are not clear, especially when it comes to paying for exorbitantly high utility bills. I applaud the Public Utility Law Project for co-hosting this great event so my staff members and the staff of other elected officials can effectively advocate on their constituents’ behalf.”
Montgomery (D-Fort Greene-Boerum Hill) said that the hot weather brings more electricity use “and that means all our bills may be going up, too!” The seminar was important, she said because it enabled her staff to be “better able to help our constituents with any questions or problems they may have.”
The combination of low incomes and high utility bills is a toxic mix, according to Treyger (D-Coney Island-Gravesend-Bensonhurst).
“Between high electric rates and severe weather, far too many New Yorkers face the prospect of having their electricity shut off at no fault of their own,” Treyger said. “I have heard from many residents who face difficult choices each month as a result of constantly rising electric bills, which then results in a never-ending cycle of late fees and shutoff notices.”
“No New Yorker should have to choose between lights and medicine, or heat and food,” Berkley said.
In a brochure issued in 2014, the area’s largest utility company, Con Edison, pointed out that it has several programs in place to assist low income consumers, as well as those with health problems.
There is a Senior Direct program that allows older adults to get fast answers to questions about billing and service. Another initiative, the Concern Program, offers alternative bill paying options and gives consumers information on government aid programs and nonprofit groups that can offer assistance.
“We do not disconnect service during a health or safety emergency,” the brochure read.
Another program allows a customer to pay an even rate over a 12-month period, rather than have the bill spike up and drop down during certain months.