New York – On August 18th at 3pm, State Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani and State Senator Jabari Brisport stood with advocates from across the state at a press conference on utility debt relief. Advocates included the NY Energy Democracy Alliance, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Alliance for Green Economy, Good Ol’ Lower East Side, Citizens for Local Power, Public Utility Law Project, Public Power NY, Sane Energy Project, Mothers Out Front NY, and Food & Water Watch outside of the Public Service Commission’s offices in New York City and Albany, calling on the Public Service Commission to act and ensure relief for struggling New Yorkers. They called on the Public Service Commission to end utility shutoffs, and to require utility shareholders who have continued to profit throughout the pandemic to cover all utility debt. Link to footage from the event can be found HERE.
As of June 2021, nearly 1.2 million households and 141,273 businesses in NY are 60 days or more behind on their energy bills. The energy debt of these customers is over $2 billion total, with indebted residential customers owing an average of $1,230.08 to the utilities. These households are now at risk of electricity, water, and gas shutoffs given that the moratorium on shutoffs expired on June 24th, 2021. This is unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that both the utilities and the Public Service Commission (PSC) have had more than a full year to work on a plan to address the mounting energy debt crisis, and have yet to offer solutions that would not put the burden of debt back onto ratepayers.
State Senator Jabari Brisport said: “Privately owned utility companies do not need one dime more in profits. Energy, water, and utilities are a human right and should not be privatized; rather, they should be run by the public and for the public good. We know that private utilities spend these profits on things that do not benefit the public, like the North Brooklyn Pipeline. This not only doesn’t benefit people, but actively harms communities through the threat of leaks, explosions, and further climate catastrophe. We don’t want new fossil fuel infrastructure. We are calling on the PSC to say that the debts need to be cancelled on the shareholders’ dime. Make the shareholders pay, and moving forward, we need to shift to a publicly-owned renewable energy system.”
State Assemblymember Emily Gallagher said: “”Basic utilities are a human right and a necessity to survive but too many of our neighbors are facing imminent shut-offs because our state continues to prioritize corporate profits over the public good. We must cancel all utility debt accrued during the pandemic and rapidly move toward public, democratic-control of our energy system.”
State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani said: “Freedom means nothing without economic freedom. We don’t care about freedom solely as an intellectual concept or as a vehicle for patriotism – we care about how we experience it on a day to day basis. It is the freedom of New Yorkers that is at stake when we decide to put the cost of fossil fuel at the feet of average working class New Yorkers as opposed to shareholders. When we continue to prioritize a system for private ownership and extraction over public power. When we say again and again the CLCPA is simply rhetorical and does not apply to rate cases. I am so proud of the fact that we have the possibility of a new day with Governor Hochul coming into office, because Cuomo has been nothing but an obstacle to every climate fight we’ve had. End the shutoffs, cancel the debts, make the shareholders pay, ensure we have public power, and make the word freedom mean something for working class New Yorkers.”
Yuwa Vosper, Policy & Regulatory Manager for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said: “It has been 18 months. This is more than enough time for The Public Service Commission to form a response to the COVID 19 debt crisis. Yet, meaningful action has failed to take place. We are here demanding debt relief for customers and people who desperately need this assistance. We need to remember that the city’s essential workers are disproportionately people of color. Essential workers who are employed in low-wage industry sectors experienced greater rates of housing instability, food insecurity and financial hardship, and are living below the federal poverty line or hovering near it. These are the same people we praised, held parades, and clapped out our windows for just months prior. We need the PSC to cancel the debt for these workers and for all New Yorkers.”
Avni Pravin, Deputy Policy Director for AGREE, put it thusly: “It is unacceptable that the Public Service Commission, charged with a responsibility to protect the public and vulnerable New Yorkers from monopolistic utilities, has not taken the urgent actions needed to resolve the utility debt crisis. In fact, the only actions taken have been to more comfortably line the pockets of our corporate utilities. As seen on Thursday of last week, the PSC approved a major and unaffordable rate hike, on top of already unaffordable rates, to pay for a fracked gas pipeline that will tear through black and brown communities, impact the health of already pollution burdened communities, and exacerbate our climate crisis. We are facing down the barrel of a gun loaded with evictions, crushing financial debt, potential deaths from utility shutoffs, and the climate crisis all while the corporate utilities consolidate their monopoly power. We need utility debt cancelled now.”
Brian Sempala-Kimuli, an Organizer with the Capitol District Democratic Socialists of America, said: “On August 12 the Public Service Commission showed their true allegiance yet again. Not only did the Commissioners fail to address the utility debt crisis—they made it even
worse. They sided with National Grid and chose to raise rates for downstate customers, over 280,000 of whom are already struggling to afford their utility bills. What we need is public power! We need a democratically accountable and publicly owned energy system that prioritizes our climate, fair wage jobs, and communities historically impacted by fossil fuel development and burdened by utility debt. Public power isn’t a new or radical idea. It works at a local level for over 50 municipalities across the state. Just like the climate crisis, it’s right here, right now. We need utility debt forgiveness and we need public power for all of New York State!”
“After 18 months of Covid-19’s public health and economic crisis, more than one million households owe approximately $1.5 billion on energy utility bills, and unknown but likely equally unaffordable amounts on their water, telephone and internet bills,” said Richard Berkley, Executive Director of the Public Utility Law Project. “We cannot abandon New York’s vulnerable households to an inescapable pit of debt, which is why we are calling upon the PSC and OTDA to finally fix this crisis.”
New York State desperately needs relief from the COVID-19 induced economic recession. According to a report from the Empire Center: “As of February, private employment in New York State was still down 12.2% from a year earlier— more than double the national average decrease of 6%, and the second biggest decline of any state except Hawaii (-19.7%).” And as New Yorkers lost work, bills continued to mount, trapping increasing numbers of New Yorkers in an inescapable spiral of debt.
During their August 12th PSC meeting, the Commissioners failed to address the utility debt or utility shutoff crises. They did add $129 million in additional benefits to their $237.6 million low-income energy bill discount programs, which would expand the reach of the program to an additional 95,000 customers. But that expansion is not nearly enough to cover the $2 billion in utility debt that is continuing to skyrocket. In addition, they approved a rate hike for downstate National Grid customers that would increase bills an average of $125/year beginning in mid-2022, forcing customers to pay millions for controversial new fossil fuel infrastructure like the North Brooklyn Pipeline and worsening the energy affordability crisis. They are also considering similar rate hikes in utility territories across New York.
Gianni Rodriguez, Environmental Justice & Climate Resiliency Organizer for Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), said: “La pandemia ha dejado a muchas familias en una situación financiera incierta. Las comunidades mas afectadas han sido como la nuestra: en su mayoria gente de color, familias de bajos ingresos, con mucha gente perdiendo su trabajo durante la crisis. Estas son las mismas personas que están atrasadas en los pagos de servicios públicos porque han tenido que elegir entre las facturas que pueden pagar cada mes. Estamos aqui hoy para exigirle a la comision de servicio publicos que cancele todas las deudas de los servicios publicos, que ponga fin a todas las cancelaciones de los servicos, y que los inversionistas sean los que absorban la carga de pagar las deudas, no las familias que ya no aguantan mas.”
Tanisha Logan Lattimore, an Organizer with Mothers Out Front, said: “As a Mothers Out Front member, we advocate for a livable planet for our children and future generations. I believe
I am obligated to fight for every human right such as water and utilities. The pandemic has devastated the incomes and lives of NYS residents and the world. We must be able to pick up the pieces and move forward. Ending utility debt will aid us in a more positive outlook on our human situation.”
Susie Ximenez, Community Engagement Coordinator for Citizens for Local Power, said: “The system we live in allows corporations to get bailouts, and lets their CEOs become millionaires and billionaires during pandemics while many of our community members struggled to cover the cost of our utility bills and everyday essentials. Shareholders can afford to cancel our debts!”
Anna Tsomo, an Organizer with Sane Energy Project, said: “The reason I got involved in this fight is because the North Brooklyn Pipeline was built one block away from my family’s home. So I know what it feels like to have the face of the extractive fossil fuel economy come to your doorstep. Last week, the PSC voted to allow National Grid to extract more money from New Yorkers who are working hard to survive, in order to pay for the North Brooklyn Pipeline that communities have been opposing for over two years. National Grid’s CEO John Pettigrew makes $3,600 a day. It doesn’t make sense for him to be making money off of New Yorkers when we are struggling to pay bills. We will not pay for the North Brooklyn Pipeline. Utility debt should be cancelled. No more fossil fuel economy! We’re investing in public power and renewables now!”
“The situation is a result of the growing inequality we are seeing, and it is unacceptable” said Susan H. Gillespie, President of the Board of Citizens for Local Power. “Shareholders already get guaranteed profits on their investments in our ‘public’ utilities. They need to share the burden of making sure everybody has electricity for their daily use, schooling, etc. etc.”
“The financial crisis gripping New Yorkers struggling with utility debt is a public health crisis, too. The case is clear, as research has shown, stopping utility shutoffs, and water shutoffs in particular, during a public health crisis saves lives. Water is a human right under any circumstance, and the incoming Governor Hochul has a moral obligation to ensure that every New Yorker has access to safe affordable water,” said Eric Weltman, senior organizer with Food & Water Watch.
The New York Energy Democracy Alliance is an alliance of community organizations, policy experts and grassroots advocates from across New York State, all working toward an energy system that is renewable, equitable, accountable and local. We can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/EnergyDemocracyNY and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NYenergydem