Tonawanda News

April 17, 2013

Groups push for utility oversight

Staff Reports
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — A leading New York advocacy group for seniors is pushing for legislation to change the state's utility costs, which they say are among the nation's highest. 

AARP New York and a coalition of consumer groups are proposing lawmakers establish an independent utility overseer, stating that New York is one of the only in the nation without such an entity. The group represents 2.3 million New York seniors. 

"Utility companies have a lot of resources to press through rate hikes; consumers don’t," said Beth Finkel, state director for AARP in New York. "Older New Yorkers, most living on fixed incomes, are the hardest hit by utility bill increases leaving many to choose between filling a prescription and turning up the thermostat or air-conditioning. Clearly, the utility game has got to change.” 

At the state Capitol on Tuesday, the group announced proposed legislation being sponsored by downstate Democrats Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz and state Sen. Diane Savino, who are backing legal changes they say would establish an independent utility consumer advocate office. The new office would represent the interests of New York consumers when utility companies press for rate hikes or other complex regulatory issues, such as those in telecommunications cases. 

"The creation of an appointed advocate with the powers allotted in this bill would give New York utility customers a voice at the table and save them a considerable amount of money when it comes to the utilities they use every day," Dinowitz said. "This bill will be a major step in bringing New York state to the front of the pack when it comes to consumer protections and making sure the state is working on consumers’ behalf. When the utility companies come with their hands out asking for a rate increase every customer in New York will know that there is someone at the table with the ability to question and review their proposals."

Forty states have established utility consumer advocate offices, saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars on their utility bills a year, according to AARP.  

"New Yorkers, who have been hammered by high utility costs and unreliable utility service, desperately need an independent watchdog that has the legal authority to bark, and when necessary bite, to protect their interests,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel with New York Public Interest Research Group.