The state's Public Service Commission is considering changes to existing low-income utility assistance, seeking ways to improve service for those who need it most. Activists say the current system is badly flawed and underfunded.
The PSC is evaluating its current low-income utility programs to identify best practices and develop a set of new guidelines to improve the programs. Among proposals under consideration: automatic enrollment for all utility HEAP recipients, discounts that amount to a six percent energy burden for the average participant, further evaluation of arrearage forgiveness programs and a ban on reconnection fees.
Representatives from New York's Public Service Department hosted a public informational hearing inside the downtown Buffalo public library auditorium on Thursday. It's one of several hearings scheduled to gather public input that will, in turn, be forwarded to the Commission.
" We're traveling around the state to different locations to get as much understanding from people affected by these programs, who are having challenges with their energy, try to bring that input into the case and make sure the voice of the consumer is heard," said Michael Corso, consumer advocate for the Public Service Department.
Prior to the start of Thursday's hearing, outside the library, about 20 activists gathered to say the current system is flawed and has a formula which actually leaves lower-income households paying higher energy rates. PUSH Buffalo hosted the outside rally, but they are one of just 34 organizations statewide which have signed a letter to the PSC, calling for several adjustments.
Those adjustments include increasing the number of eligible recipients, aiding with winterizing of homes, and sharply increasing the amount of dollars spent in utility assistance.
"Right now, the program that they've proposed has a budget of $170 million," said Megan Maloney DeZaldivar, energy democracy organizer with PUSH Buffalo. "However, they themselves have admitted the affordability crisis. There's over $800 million in arrears. They're proposing a program that's not going to even come close to covering the needs."
In the letter to the PSC, activists propose spending at least $600 million in assistance.
Speaking at the outdoor rally was Buffalo Common Councilmember David Rivera, who added that he and his fellow lawmakers recently passed a resolution calling on the PSC to adequately address the utility needs of low-income households.
"There has to be a better formula to pay for these programs," Rivera said. "Yes, these programs are needed. However, the formula they're using is unfair to the rate payers."