Members of the Democratic Socialists of America had been working for months with Councilman Costa Constantinides to organize a forum to give public testimony on Con Edison’s 2020 rate hike that would rake in $695 million for utility company, but the stakes significantly increased with the blackouts in Manhattan last week.
Then came the outages in Brooklyn and Queens over the weekend, with more to follow in southeast Queens that night.
“Leave it to DSA: They’re so forward-thinking they plan an event around Con Ed even before the blackout,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joked at the forum.
At the hearing on Monday night at P.S. 122 in Astoria, Constantinides and the DSA Ecosocialist Working Group set an immediate goal of putting pressure on the Public Service Commission (PSC), the state entity in charge of regulating and overseeing Con Edison, to stop the rate hike.
But throughout the testimony, a more ambitious theme emerged: public power now.
The majority of the speakers called to replace Con Edison with a public entity. And it turns out that they’re not too far off from the messaging of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Earlier that day, both executives suggested that the recent spate of service failures had put Con Edison’s contract with the PSC on the chopping block.
Constantinides framed the rejection of the rate hike as the first step down the path toward transferring New York City’s utilities to public control.
“This is going to take a lot of coordination with the state. We’re going to have to work very closely with my state colleagues and getting the PSC to recognize this is a real problem. And not grant this rate hike, number one,” Constantinides said.
Comprised of DSA members, representatives of environmental groups and Astoria residents, those who testified said that Con Ed’s proposed rate hike represented an investment in fossil fuel infrastructure. They worried that the income from the hike would pay for new gas lines that would bond the city to fossil fuels instead of investing in renewable energy.
As evidence, DSA member Amber Ruther pointed to Con Edison’s payment of $1.4 million in dues to trade associations like the American Gas Association that lobby against renewable energy sources.
Con Edison responded that they are working on clean heat and energy savings options like geothermal heating, but in the meantime they have over one million customers to serve until such alternatives are developed.
Several other speakers cited CEO John McAvoy’s $8 million income as indicative of the company’s priorities.
“The goal to find profits in the short term leads Con Edison to make decisions that are squarely against the public interest,” said DSA member Chris Gentry.
DSA member Charlie Heller made the connection between the recent outages as a result of the company’s profit motive. “A more proactive maintenance plan to prevent our city’s frequent transformer fires and pipe explosions, while leaving ailing equipment which is sometimes literally over 100 years old … is more profitable,” Heller said.
Con Edison claims that it routinely invests over a billion dollars a year in maintaining and upgrading the system.
“Especially when you’re paying dividends out to shareholders, those should be reinvested in the community. The whole notion that we have a public utility that is giving out private dividends is a bad model,” Constantinides said.
While Constantinides admitted that it will be a long fight ahead to push the PSC to consider creating a public entity, he was heartened by the community support he saw at the hearing.
“It’s pouring outside in 95 degree heat and we have over a hundred people here. This just struck a chord. Folks here tonight came from all over the five boroughs to speak their minds that we deserve better than Con Edison,” Constantinides said.
Con Edison responded to the criticism by claiming that its service is “the most reliable in the nation by any objective metric.”
“Con Edison is one of the state’s largest employers and taxpayers; the company is the largest property taxpayer in New York City,” its spokesperson wrote.
A transcript of the evening’s testimony will be submitted into the PSC record on Con Ed’s rate case.