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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Wait is on for decisions on Central Hudson rate hike requests – Daily Freeman

KINGSTON, N.Y. —The waiting game is on for Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp., its critics, and more than 312,000 customers.

Rate increase hearings, which went on for 10 days in January and February, are over, leaving a recommendation in the hands of administrative judges and finals decision on Central Hudson’s rate increase requests in the purview of the Public Service Commission.

“Central Hudson appreciates the opportunity to review our proposed rate plan with the administrative law judges, our regulators at the Department of Public Service and other stakeholders,” said Joseph Jenkins, a utility spokesman. “We await the recommendation from the judges and the subsequent ruling from the commissioners at the PSC.”

“Central Hudson filed its proposed rate plan last July to make needed investments both in our energy systems so we can continue to provide safe and reliable service and to expand our workforce so we can meet the needs of our customers and our communities,” Jenkins added.

It remains unclear when the judges will make their recommendation but the PSC has said it expects to decide on the rate increase request in the second quarter of this year. The utility has requested a 16% delivery rate increase for electricity and a 19% hike for gas.

Representatives of the Public Utility Law Project, a watchdog group known as PULP, attended each of the hearings conducted in Albany. Participants such as PULP are filing legal briefs with the judges.

“As we look ahead, PULP is now gearing our efforts toward the briefing schedule, as established by the Administrative Law Judges,” Wheelock said in a statement. “This next phase presents another opportunity for PULP to articulate our stances clearly, leveraging what we learned in the hearing to bolster our position, and argue against the proposed rate increase.”

The group said in a statement that the hearings were pivotal.

“PULP participated in the 10-day Evidentiary Hearing and seized the opportunity to ask questions about Central Hudson’s proposed rate increase and its merits,” the statement said. “This engagement was pivotal for PULP, as we aimed to thoroughly understand and question several key aspects of the Company’s rate filing. A primary focus was to ascertain the current state of Central Hudson’s staffing levels and uncover any new programs they plan to implement to support their customers in 2024 and beyond.”

In particular, PULP was particularly focused on the company’s intentions as to “when and how it plans to reintroduce late payment charges and restart residential service terminations for non-payment.”

“This concern was underscored by the worrying statistic that, as of December 2023, almost 65,000 Central Hudson customers were sixty days or more behind on their bill and collectively owe nearly $118 million,” the group said. “We believe such a significant number of the Company’s customers in arrears highlights the need for transparency and open communication with the public, especially as the heating season continues.”

Similarly, state Assemblywoman Sarahana Shrestha expressed those concerns in a statement issued on Thursday, Feb. 8. She has introduced a bill known as the Disadvantaged Communities Commitment Act.

“The work our office is doing in getting constituents to submit bills they can’t understand or think are incorrect helps to build evidence against Central Hudson’s claim as to how far along they are in resolving billing issues,” Shrestha said. “The sooner the company is able to claim the issues are mostly resolved, which they’ve been doing for a while, the sooner it will be able to start collecting late fees and report ratepayers to collection agencies. At the hearing, Central Hudson confirmed that it has resumed collection for a small group of residential customers with closed accounts that won’t include low-income customers, and that starting July of 2023, such customers have gotten several rounds of communication after their final bill before they’re sent to collection agencies. We can confirm this is the case because we’ve heard from many of those confused constituents who received this type of communication.”

Shrestha has introduced a bill to prohibit late fees and non-payment shut-offs when a utility is under a major investigation. The bill is currently in the state Legislature’s Corporations Committee.

“Through the rate case, we’ve also come to learn that Central Hudson does not identify which of its customers live in communities that have been designated as disadvantaged by the state,” Shrestha said. “Per the state’s climate law, our energy policies must be equitable to such communities, and we, of course, think steep rate increases and collection activities are the opposite of that.”

Shrestha said Central Hudson confirmed during the hearing that it did not factor in the disadvantaged community (DAC) designation when selecting the small group for collection activities. Shrestha’s bill requires investor-owned energy utilities to identify DACs in their service area and to make broad-level data on them available to the public, such as how many residential customers in those communities are enrolled in energy assistance programs.

Jenkins said that Central Hudson knows of impacts on the poor.

“We make every effort to be mindful of impacts to our low-to-moderate income customers,” Jenkins said.  “Between 2020 and 2022, Central Hudson has invested more than $58.7 million across low-income bill discount programs and incentives & services provided for energy efficiency and beneficial electrification upgrades within disadvantaged communities.”

“Central Hudson has not terminated residential customers for non-payment since March of 2020, but expects to resume this essential business practice in a limited fashion later in 2024. In order to limit the amount of unpaid bills, utilities — like other businesses — need a policy in place to encourage timely payments for those customers with an ability to pay.”

Jenkins said the policy benefits customers who pay on time.

“This policy protects customers who pay their bills timely from having to pay for additional costs caused by customers who do not pay,” Jenkins added.

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