Dinowitz will try, try again for a consumer advocate

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Costs of living in New York City are high, and that’s no secret. Rent is expensive. Groceries are expensive. Taxes are expensive.

But there are a few expenses that rise above all of those, and it comes in the form of a monthly utility bill from companies like Con Edison.

ConEd provides gas, electricity, and steam to millions of customers across all five boroughs, with National Grid providing electricity to parts of Queens and all of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Yet it’s ConEd preparing to raise rates in 2020,  and two more times through 2022.

Electricity rates will rise nearly 5 percent this year, while gas will kick up just under 8 percent. The hikes come as part of an agreement ConEd struck with state officials — an agreement Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz isn’t too thrilled about.

During last year’s session, Dinowitz proposed a bill he says would create a utility consumer advocate. That person would be responsible for representing utility customers with the companies sending them those monthly bills. While Dinowitz’s efforts made it through both legislative chambers, it died on the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month, who said this new advocate was too similar to existing offices within the state government.

Cuomo likely was referring to the Department of Public Service, and the Utility Intervention Unit. Neither is sufficiently independent from the state government, however,, Dinowitz said, and cannot accurately represent the needs and wants of residential consumers.

“The rate hike proposal will be presented for final approval to the New York State Public Service Commission, but utility consumers will not have an independent advocate fighting for them at those proceedings,” Dinowitz said in a statement.

The Assemblyman’s interest in the utility consumer advocate legislation started after he read a news story about how similar office exists in dozens of other states, and how the consumers there “have saved millions of dollars as a result,” Dinowitz said.

“I think I’ve always felt a little burned by how our utilities are operated in New York,” Dinowitz said. “But when I read that article, I remember thinking to myself that things don’t need to be like this.”

Some 40 states currently run similar consumer advocate offices focused on saving money for residential consumers — not necessarily businesses or large entities. Dinowitz, who previously served as the chair of the Assembly’s consumer affairs committee, has introduced versions of the bill five times.

The most recent version easily passed through the state senate and Assembly before being vetoed by the governor, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“I think the most important change was that we finally have a state senate majority that seems interested in consumer protection issues,” he said. “Previously, my legislation often ran up against corporate interests and legislators who were more interested in protecting profits than protecting people.”

No one’s ever in favor of utility increases, said Lew Wunderlich, who lives in Spuyten Duyvil. “I can see justification for increases if we’re going to cleaner sources of energy, renewable energy, and I don’t mind paying an increase for that. I think most people would probably be of that ilk.”

Wunderlich wasn’t familiar with Dinowitz’s proposed bill, but was in favor of an “independent watchdog” advocating for New Yorkers.

“Often the conglomerate of utilities will appoint somebody,” Wunderlich said. “But, it’s kind of the case of the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Dinowitz agrees. The descriptions of current utility advocates are perhaps intentionally vague, he said, and don’t require they work exclusively for residential consumers, also working to create a “competitive market.”

“As we saw with the National Grid issue on Long Island, where the utility provider was refusing to hook up new buildings to their gas lines as leverage to try and secure a new natural gas pipeline, it is not cut-and-dry what an ‘effective competitive market’ means,” Dinowitz said.

Different versions of the bill have been introduced since 2013, but none have passed, stalling out in the state senate or on the governor’s desk. Before, Dinowitz said, the state senate wasn’t always in his favor.

But at least now that the state senate is in Democratic hands, the Assemblyman has to overcome just one last obstacle.

“I’m not sure what it will take to get the governor on board,” Dinowitz said, “but I think we are in agreement on the core principles and just disagree on the details.

“I’m sure the governor has full faith that his executive office staff is doing a fine job, and that might be true. But we shouldn’t craft policy based around who is currently in charge. We need to think about what will happen down the road. We may not always have an ally of consumers in the governor’s mansion, and it’s important that we prepare for that eventuality.”

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