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Opposition to National Grid rate hike proposal peaks, as PSC comes to Buffalo

Ellen Abbott
Most who turned out for a public hearing in Syracuse Monday were against the proposed National Grid rate hike.

The New York State Public Service Commission continues to gather comments on National Grid’s proposed 17.5 percent rate hike. Buffalo will be the site of a final public hearing Tuesday - and protestors are expected to be out in force.

Tuesday's hearing will be held at Buffalo's Central Library in downtown. It will begin with an informational session at 2 p.m., then public comments at 3 p.m. There also will be a similar evening session, beginning at 6 p.m.

Area residents and members of the Niagara Chapter of the Sierra Club, PUSH Buffalo and the Crossroads Collective plan to rally against the rate hike at 6:30 p.m., saying the elderly, disabled and lower middle class cannot afford to pay more for energy.

The company is seeking to raise rates for Western New York electric customers by an average of $8.93 per month, saying the revenue raised will help pay for infrastructure investments and create new jobs. For its combined electric and gas customers in cities like Syracuse and Albany, an average monthly utility bill would increase by $17.63.

On Monday, the biggest crowd so far turned out in Syracuse - and most were opposed to the idea. A recurring theme among many of those opposed to the rate hike was that low-income residents would suffer if forced to pay more for gas and electric.

"Some people just can’t afford to pay National Grid if they continue going up and up,” said one person in attendance.

The company said it needs the increase to upgrade and modernize their system, and create programs to advance new energy sources. National Grid spokeswoman Virginia Limmiatis said the rate hike will also enhance programs like HEAP, which supplements electric bills for low-income individuals.

"Despite what folks think, those HEAP-eligible customers would actually experience a decrease in their delivery rates. We have a very robust energy affordability program that’s part of the proposal,” Limmiatis said. "It’s not about choosing energy over food and medicine, this is not about that. It’s about us and an opportunity to help grow the region, to continue to invest in our infrastructure, to continue safety and reliability, power quality for our customers.”

National Grid is asking for a $331 million rate increase, the first in over a dozen years, according to Limmiatis. She says gas and electric customers would pay an average of $8 a month extra for each service.

But at the hearing, customers like Linda Tomlinson suggested the rate increase is unfair to low income individuals, considering what she said is a 9 percent profit margin for the utility.

“I mean 60,000 people had their power turned off. That’s outrageous," she said. "And they want to increase that profit margin. Who gets 9 percent? What do you get on bank accounts, 1 percent or 2 percent? That’s what they should get, not 9 percent.”

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and the entire Common Council wrote a letter opposing the rate increases, saying that in addition to it being difficult on Syracuse’s poorest residents, the city cannot afford to pay an increased power bill.

The Public Service Commission has the final say for an increase that would go into effect in April of 2018. The PSC will continue to take comments on the rate increase beyond the public hearings.