Metro Justice

Inside the Fight To Kick Out Rochester’s Power Company

In New York’s third-largest city, locals are sick of skyrocketing bills and dirty fuel sources. They’re fighting against long odds for the public to own the grid.

Story by Colin Kinniburgh

Published on

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Read part one of this series on public power in New York here. This series first appeared in New York Focus, a non-profit news publication investigating how power works in New York state. Sign up for their newsletter here.

On a Tuesday night in mid-March, the streets of downtown Rochester were empty as the remnants of a nor’easter swirled through. But the fourth floor of the county office building was packed. Residents milled outside the chamber doors for close to an hour, then lined up inside for two more to address their county reps. Most were there to complain about one thing: their utility company.

Utilities are rarely popular, but Rochester Gas & Electric has drawn a special furor in the past two years. Speaker after speaker slammed RG&E over astronomical bills that in many cases seemed to come out of nowhere. An 82-year-old retiree said she had received a $5,900 bill; another woman said her bill had reached nearly $7,200 after months of fruitless attempts to get an accurate meter reading.

Residents at the March meeting said they were tired of pleading with regulators for relief. One after the other said they wanted lawmakers to take matters into their own hands — with a public takeover.

In the third-largest city in New York, an ascendant public power campaign proposes that the municipality buy out the utility — a subsidiary of the holding company Avangrid, which is itself a subsidiary of the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola.

“RG&E uses our money to enrich the shareholders of its parent companies instead of investing in a reliable grid for residents,” said Mohini Sharma of the local group Metro Justice, which is leading the public power fight. “The only way to do something about it is to take back control of the grid and our ratepayer dollars by turning RG&E into a public utility.”

Last Tuesday, three months after the county meeting, the Rochester City Council unanimously committed $500,000 to study whether, and how, a public overhaul would work. It was a significant milestone for the nearly four-year public power campaign, but the proposal still faces an uphill battle. The city funding relies on the county or state to take the lead in commissioning and paying for the study, estimated to cost $1.5 million in total. The county executive has so far refused; the state has kept mum.

The study itself would just be the first step. If experts recommend municipalization, as such a public takeover is called, residents will still need to vote to approve it, and it’s hard to tell how popular the proposal would be once it’s put to the full city or county. But it has clearly struck a nerve. If it were to pass, RG&E would likely fight it in court.

The company has made its opposition to public power clear, while issuing a string of mea culpas over the billing issues and promising to fix them with the help of more than 200 new hires by the end of this year. But many residents have run out of patience with their grid’s private owners — and the existing mechanisms for oversight.

Regulators deem many of the high bills erroneous, but residents have still attempted to pay them. While those regulators have opened an investigation into billing errors from RG&E and its Hudson Valley partner, New York State Electric & Gas, for many Rochester customers, the investigation isn’t enough.

A proposed rate hike has added fuel to the fire. The campaign has captured some of the momentum of a wider public power fight that recently gave new, state-owned renewables a foothold in the clean energy transition. And like that fight, it has divided unions: The service workers’ union 1199SEIU is on board with the Rochester campaign, but the union representing RG&E electricians is opposed.

Local public power organizers have their eyes on the long game. They see the campaign in the vein of movements like the Fight for 15, which doubled New York’s minimum wage after years of protests and strikes. If they win, Rochester’s could be the largest public takeover nationwide in decades — though a ballot initiative in Maine is racing for the title. And it could have ripple effects across New York’s entire energy system as the state races toward its climate deadlines.

Metro Justice is leading the public power fight under the banner of “energy democracy,” a concept it embraced in 2019 out of concern for both residents’ wallets and the planet. Many of the group’s members worried that RG&E was slow-walking the transition to clean energy, and that a more aggressive approach was needed. They landed on public ownership.

Then the pandemic hit, and “just made everything so much worse,” recalled Sharma, the group’s organizing director. “All the problems that RG&E already had were just exacerbated.” The group joined a statewide coalition demanding a full moratorium on utility shutoffs during the pandemic, which became the first of its kind to pass into law nationwide.

As the pandemic ebbed, residents’ woes only worsened. Last year, while utility debt spiraled across the state, RG&E customers began reporting stunningly high bills. Darryl Ballard, who works at a car dealership, was paying about $150 a month on average for his home in Rochester’s Dutchtown neighborhood. But in January 2022, he said, things went “haywire.” His bill quadrupled to more than $600, then nearly quadrupled again to $2,200 that March.

Ballard also owns a fixer-upper house nearby, which he’s been renovating little by little in the hopes that his kids can one day live there. He rarely turns on more than a light or two, he said, but the house has been receiving bills of $200 a month. He eventually worked out a payment plan with RG&E, but was still struggling to pay off the inexplicably high bills when New York Focus visited this spring.

Veronica Dasher, regional manager of government and community relations at RG&E, said the company couldn’t comment on an individual customer’s situation, but acknowledged that billing issues have been widespread. She blamed them on a confluence of pandemic-related factors: The company was unable to enter many residents’ homes to check their meters out of health precautions, forcing them to rely heavily on estimated bills. Dasher said the company had often guessed too low, so it hiked bills up when workers were finally able to read the meters.

And like many employers, RG&E faced staffing shortages, leading to a backlog of complaints when customers started calling about their higher bills. The company has since hired more than 100 new customer service reps and made progress in addressing the backlog, Dasher said, reducing the share of customers with estimated bills by 63 percent in a year. (A spokesperson did not reply when asked to clarify before-and-after figures.)

Some residents said they hadn’t seen much progress. Others said it was simply too late. Ballard, for one, had gotten frustrated enough to start asking whether the city needed RG&E at all.

“I got tired of screaming at them,” he said. One day, when he was home fuming over his bills, he turned on the TV and saw a report about a town hall organized by Metro Justice. He started volunteering with the public power campaign, including taking a bus to Albany to take the group’s demands to their state reps.

He’s also one of the many Rochester residents who took their complaints to the state Public Service Commission, leading regulators to open an investigation into RG&E’s billing practices. The investigation comes just as the commission is weighing steep rate hikes sought by RG&E and its Hudson Valley affiliate. A proposed settlement released in mid-June would see the “delivery” side of RG&E bills — which covers infrastructure upgrades and operating expenses — increase roughly 10 percent per year through 2025.

The commission and the company have touted the settlement as a fair compromise in light of economy-wide inflation and clean energy demands; the utility originally wanted double the increase. The rate hike will also slightly increase the company’s profits, to a guaranteed rate of 9.2 percent. RG&E returned close to $100 million to investors in each of the last two years, according to financial statements.

For public power backers, cutting those profits out of the equation is an obvious way to save ratepayers money. Nationally, public utilities charge about 13 percent less on average than their privately owned counterparts, according to the American Public Power Association. In New York, the gap can be far wider, thanks to an arrangement that gives municipal utilities preferential access to cheap, state-owned hydropower. Residents in the town of Massena, for example, generally pay about a third as much for electricity as their neighbors served by National Grid.

The desire for lower rates and greater local control has fueled a handful of municipalization efforts around the country in recent decades, with mixed results. Winter Park, Florida, successfully bought out its grid from a private utility in 2005, and has since seen rates drop and reliability improve. (It paid back its loan for the upfront costs of the takeover within a decade.) Boulder, Colorado — population 104,000 — waged a high-profile municipalization fight throughout the 2010s, but ultimately shelved the idea in exchange for a variety of concessions from the utility, including burying power lines and meeting strict climate targets.

This year, Maine voters are deciding whether to buy out the state’s entire grid from its two main utilities and hand the reins to a new public entity, which would contract with a private company for day-to-day operations. (New York has a version of this arrangement in the Long Island Power Authority, which has outsourced operations to New Jersey-based PSEG since 2014.)

Some public power veterans are skeptical that a city like Rochester could pull off such a takeover today. Eugene Nicandri, who served as Massena’s town counsel during its seven-year fight with Niagara Mohawk, notes that New York tightened its eminent domain laws not long after Massena won, making it harder for a municipality to buy out an incumbent utility.

“I think it’s a lot harder today than it was” 50 years ago, Nicandri said. “The investor owned-utilities didn’t want to see a lot of this happening across the state [and] got the condemnation law of the state of New York changed.”

It’s also unclear whether Rochester would benefit from the main mechanism that keeps rates in Massena so low: cheap hydropower from the New York Power Authority. The bulk of NYPA hydropower is already allocated to small towns and businesses around the state, and diverting some to a much larger city could prove legally and politically fraught.

Sharma, of Metro Justice, said it’s too early to rule out NYPA hydropower for Rochester. And she pointed to NYPA’s fresh mandate to build renewables as an opportunity to expand the base of clean energy available to municipalities throughout the state.

But the details of how, or whether, a public utility might be able to secure cheaper, cleaner energy for Rochester remain speculative. For now, campaigners are focused on passing a study that could begin to answer those questions — and some fear that their recent win at the city level may only have led to a new impasse.

Mary Lupien, vice president of Rochester City Council and a longtime supporter of public power for the city, worries that Mayor Malik Evans only conceded to Tuesday’s vote because he expected the proposal to hit a wall at the county level.

“It seems like it was a way to appease the activists, but not actually move forward,” she said.

For months, the mayor has argued that, “as one of the poorest municipalities in the state,” Rochester shouldn’t bear the burden for studying the public takeover — the state and surrounding counties should. Asked to comment after Tuesday’s vote, Evans’s office said he had not signed the resolution backing the study and deferred to the city council.

On Wednesday, County Executive Adam Bello announced his opposition.

“Creating a public utility is an extremely complex issue that is beyond the scope of Monroe County,” he said in a statement, citing RG&E’s $100 million contribution to local tax coffers and the billions of dollars in expenses that municipalization could entail. (Metro Justice argues that the figures are misleading, imagining a much larger-scale takeover than the campaign actually envisions.)

Sabrina LaMar, president of the Monroe County legislature, said she was disappointed by Bello’s statement. The county legislature is narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and the proposal has yet to win majority support; LaMar said it’s hard to see holdout Democrats banding together to overcome GOP opposition unless Bello changes his mind.

“I think that they’re listening more to RG&E than they are to the citizens of Monroe County, and it’s just not fair,” she said of Bello, a fellow Democrat.

Republicans, meanwhile, remain broadly opposed. The county legislature’s majority leader Steve Brew told New York Focus a study would likely cost far more than the $1.5 million that activists are demanding, and would waste taxpayer dollars.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said of RG&E’s recent billing snafus. “The utility can right the ship.”

RG&E, for its part, has stepped up its public relations campaign. In March, it sent two employees to the county legislature’s meeting to counter the stream of complaints. In April, it placed back-to-back op-eds in news outlets, with different authors but identical sections of text. Lupien said the company has maintained a presence at recent budget hearings as well.

“Our position is, and has always been, that a government-controlled utility is not the answer for Rochester,” RG&E said in its latest statement. “Service and reliability will be compromised, while putting taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars by significantly raising rates, jeopardizing needed grid improvements, and halting any transition to clean energy.”

The union representing RG&E electricians, IBEW Local 36, has also come out against the public power push.

“Our members are ratepayers … we have a stake in the game and this is not good for Rochester, it’s not good for the community, it’s not going to solve the problem,” union president Jeff Sondervan told a local TV station last month. Local 36 did not respond to repeated inquiries from New York Focus.

Wariness from utility unions has been a common thread since the 1970s public power fight in Massena — and applies both in Rochester and to the statewide Build Public Renewables push today. In all cases, union leaders have argued that going public will jeopardize their members’ hard-won benefits. Unions outside of the power sector, meanwhile, have been more receptive. In Massena, some credited the United Auto Workers with reviving the public power fight after it had gone dormant for several years; today, teachers’, nurses’, and other service workers’ unions are at the forefront.

Those politics aren’t top of mind for most Rochester residents. But RG&E remains an object of constant frustration, and many have yet to see the improvements it’s promised. On a Wednesday in March, waiting for her bus at the central station, food service worker Vernadette Morgan recounted her battle with the utility over a surprise $400 bill. She had to wait “hours and hours” to reach a representative, she said, before finally securing some relief from a federal assistance program for low-income households.

“People work. They don’t have time to be on the phone all day,” Morgan lamented.

Was a public utility the solution?

She perked up at the idea. “Something needs to give.”

Support for this story was provided by The Neal Peirce Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting journalism on ways to make cities and their larger regions work better for all people.

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Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Metcalf Institute. His reporting has appeared in outlets including France 24, Grist, Dissent and The Nation.

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