The new office would advocate for New Yorkers who struggle with utility companies, but some question if another office is necessary. On June 30, 2022, the City Council’s Committee for Consumer and Worker Protection held an oversight hearing to discuss recent utility rate hikes and Int. 372-2022, a bill that would establish an Office of the Utility Advocate within the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP). The bill is sponsored by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams.
The proposed Office of the Utility Advocate would establish a website, email, and phone number for consumers to contact, and advocate for these consumers during public hearings, including at rate hike cases. The Office would also conduct outreach, provide educational materials to the public about their utility services, and assist customers in obtaining payment assistance. The Office’s Director would also consult with 311, and other relevant city agencies. If the bill passes, the new office will begin operations on September 1, 2023.
The oversight hearing began with an opening statement from Councilmember and Committee Chair Marjorie Velazquez, who represents District 13 in the Bronx. According to Velazquez, New Yorkers have accrued $1 billion in utility arrears with Con Edison, the city’s primary electric and gas provider, since the start of the pandemic. A pandemic moratorium on utility rate increases ended in December 2021; Con Edison increased prices January 2022, and an additional 11.5 percent rate increase is expected this summer.
City Agency Testimony
The Committee first questioned Steven Ettannani, Executive Director of External Affairs at DCWP, and Seth Berkman, Energy Policy Advisor at the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice. Berkman noted Mayor Eric Adams’ interest in the Committee’s proposed legislation, stating “the administration welcomes this meeting.”
Ettannani and Berkman explained that under current state and local law, the New York State Department of Public Service is the primary manager of utility complaints in New York State. The Department of Public Service goes through customer complaints with the State Office of Consumer Services, addressing each within 14 days. They also oversee utility rate cases, the formal process where companies like Con Edison determine how much they should charge customers.
When asked about the number of customer complaints stemming from Con Edison’s January 2022 rate increase, Ettannani answered that DCWP does not have this data because complaints are handled through 311 citywide and by the Public Service Commission at the state level. As such, DCWP has no inherent jurisdiction over 311 utility complaints that mistakenly land there.
According to the city agency representatives, DCWP already offers financial counseling through the Office of Financial Empowerment. Consumers who still may need assistance may qualify for programs through the Human Resources Administration, which also conducts outreach in multiple languages. Utility companies are already required by the state to address rate increases, and Ettannani shared DCWP’s concern that an Office of the Utility Advocate would create another layer of bureaucracy for consumers.
Con Edison Testimony
The Committee then heard from Con Edison representatives Kyle Kimball, the Vice President of Government, Regional, and Community Affairs and Kerri-Ann Kirschbaum, Director of State Regulatory Affairs. They explained the reasons for January price increases were twofold.
First, higher winter energy costs caused an initial price hike, and Con Edison sent out a notice in fall 2021 bills predicting this increase. Kimball shared that the notice was posted on social media, as a press release, and as a separate document in customers’ billing statements, because the State’s Public Service Commission highly regulates the content included within utility bills. Several Councilmembers, including Amanda Farias of District 18 and Shekar Krishnan of District 25, voiced concerns that this notice still felt inadequate.
After the first increase, natural gas prices spiked again due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This aspect was not alluded to in customer bills since natural gas prices aren’t easily predictable, and there was nothing in January 2022 explaining either reason why bills were higher. Kimball defended Con Edison by noting that everyone is measured on different cycles and utility prices are hard to forecast. Therefore, the company cannot easily send out specific emails to customers, but blanket emails would be largely inaccurate.
Advocates and Public Testimony
Following this testimony, the Committee heard from three speakers with the Public Utility Law Project (PULP). Laurie Wheelock described an influx of Con Edison cases beginning on February 7, 2022, with two elected officials from Brooklyn calling PULP that day with concerns. While PULP encourages customers to pay what they can and to contact DPS directly, Wheelock expressed concern about energy companies’ poor communication with customers. She also alerted the Committee to Con Edison’s current rate case, where Con Edison is requesting the state to allow a further rate increase. Although the volume of cases at PULP has gone down since February, customers are still worried about utility rates. Wheelock also voiced concern about what communication existed for summer increases, stating that “just a little bit more messaging would be extremely helpful.”
William Yates added that according to the state’s Public Service Commission, the cost of utilities should only be six percent of low incomes. This percentage is commonly known as energy burden, and varies widely among the public. Currently, the city’s low-income energy burden is 8.9 percent, significantly higher than the recommended amount.
Ian Donaldson noted that PULP is generally supportive of the Utility Advocate bill, as the aid of another advocate would be “a very welcome addition” for PULP but noted that under the bill’s current language, the office’s responsibilities are overbroad.
PULP’s suggestions for the City Council included helping New Yorkers learn about programs like Con Edison’s discounts through self-certification, and that qualifying for utility assistance should be available online. They also encouraged the Council to submit comments in Con Edison’s ongoing rate case.
A few additional members of the public testified, with varying opinions on the bill. James O’Neal of AARP New York voiced support, saying “it’s what our members and older adults want” after being hit hard by the pandemic. Briana Carbajal from WeACT Environmental Justice also supported the bill, but would like it to ensure language access, funding, and staffing for the new office. On the other hand, Adira Siman of Partnership for NYC opposed the bill, echoing concerns about extra bureaucracy and the existence of current alternatives to protect consumers.
The Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection will vote on the Utility Advocate bill on Wednesday, July 13th.
By: Cassidy Strong (Cassidy is a CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2024.)
CC: Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection (Oversight Hearing, Int. 372-2022, June 30, 2022.)