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NY state proposal could help more low-income people pay for utility bills

Tom Magnarelli
National Grid's consumer advocacy team was on-hand to help people at the public hearing at the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse.

Residents spoke out at a public hearing on the state's effort to make utilities more affordable for people with low-income. That might mean all customers may have to pay a little more.

The New York State Public Service Commission’s proposal is to reduce the burden on low-income individuals and families paying for utilities to about six percent of their income. Currently, low-income residents are paying 10-20 percent of their paychecks to utilities. The six percent figure is on the higher end of the rate everyone else is paying.  

To balance the cost of this benefit, the commission proposes a new tax or surcharge to other rate payers.

Robert Fluck is from North Syracuse and is an AARP volunteer who spoke at the public hearing.

“That means a residential rate payer struggling to balance the cost of utilities with the cost food and medicine, could shoulder an amount similar to that of a large commercial company,” Fluck said.

Fluck said AARP recommends a small charge on usage rather than having every customer pay for the program.

Jim Denn is a spokesman for the Public Servic Commission, who said the PSC has been in conversations with the utilities companies about this issue.

“What staff has put forth as a proposal is to have a program that would make available $178 million annually, which is a significant increase over low-income programs,” Denn said.

The commission's proposal would limit funding of the program to an annual charge of $20 from all customers for electric and $35 from all customers for gas.

In 2014, The Public Service Commission found that 1.2 million energy customers in New York are more than 60 days late on their payments and owing about $750 million to the utilities. Almost 277,000 households across the state had their service cut off.

Nothing is final yet on the proposal that will eventually go to the Public Service Commission, which officials hope will happen by the end of the year. There are more than one million customers currently using the commission's low-income assistance program.