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New York Post

 

Albany's Power Vacuum

November 12, 2012

By Nicole Gelinas

NY pols & post-Sandy outages

More than anything, the humanitarian crisis left in Superstorm Sandy’s wake can be traced to one major headache: a widespread lack of electricity. And what paved the way, in large part, for that ? Decades of politics-as-usual cravenness.

As of Friday afternoon, nearly 166,000 "customers" (each customer can be more than one person) were in the cold and dark in the Rockaways and on Long Island. Another 19,500 were shivering in Westchester and 22,800 elsewhere in Queens, Brooklyn and on Staten Island. That’s less than 4 percent of the people who lost power — but it’s still a lot.

No power means no heat. No power invites crime. No power often means no water. No power means no food and medicine for people who can’t walk down dark stairwells.

Yes, it takes manpower to inspect tens of thousands of buildings to make sure they can re-accept power without causing a fire.

But why weren’t the utilities ready — with buried lines or well-trimmed trees, robust phone systems that could handle outage reports and communications networks to give people better estimates of when they would be up and running?

As Cuomo said of the Long Island Power Authority, which handles the Rockaways, too, "I believe they were unprepared," with "archaic and obsolete" systems. It’s a "management issue," the governor said, in dealing with "a nameless, faceless bureaucracy that is a monopoly."

Last week, Newsday noted that LIPA had outdated equipment and had never invested enough in "storm hardening." LIPA’s customers agree that the utility has been a bust, with 300 people staging a protest outside its office Saturday.

But LIPA is a state authority, with the governor in charge of naming 9 of 15 board members. So Cuomo is blaming himself.

He’s got predecessors to blame, too — plus counterparts in the state Legislature. He can start with his own father, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, who created LIPA in the mid-’80s.

Over the years, LIPA raised billions in debt to bail out the shareholders and bondholders of the for-profit Long Island Lighting Company (Lilco).

Why did Lilco need rescuing? Because it had built a nuclear plant the state wouldn’t turn on, for fear of turning off Long Islanders.

The pols wanted it both ways: Keep voters happy, but keep Lilco’s investors happy, too.

They even promised that their idea would save money. A "report [given] to Gov. Mario Cuomo Tuesday [said] that a state takeover of the financially troubled Long Island Lighting Company would cost nearly $7 billion but would save customers 7 to 9 percent," the wire services reported in 1986.

That worked out . . . not so well. But people had fair notice. Warned The New York Times back then, "The legislation’s only effect is to postpone the day of reckoning."

If LIPA weren’t still struggling to pay off bailout debt, it could have buried lines, invested in computers and made itself better prepared for storms like Sandy.

Another big problem: accountability. Con Ed, which handles most of New York City and Westchester, is a private company, so at least we know whom to blame if it does a poor job.

State regulators can cut Con Ed’s profit — and, as an extreme remedy, yank its franchise.

With LIPA, the blame game is theater. Cuomo’s been playing his part, reminding reporters that "really the provider on Long Island is National Grid."

Yes, LIPA contracts with this private firm — but National Grid does what LIPA tells it. Why not cut out the middle man? Cuomo (and lawmakers) could shut down LIPA and sell the eastern power grid to a private company, regulating it like Con Ed. No extra layer of hacks needed to keep warm. And unlike another monopoly, public transit, power doesn’t normally need government subsidies.

Of course, no company would ever take on LIPA’s legacy of debt — and the state would never let bondholders take the hit. So, we’ll keep paying for decades of political cowardliness.

Meanwhile, Cuomo is adding to the bad decisions. Thursday, he made a big deal of asking the feds to pay 100 percent of the cost of getting the power grid up and running, instead of the regular 75 percent, to avoid having to raise electric rates. "I think 100 percent reimbursement is what we deserve," he said.

But if Con Ed and LIPA know cleaning up after a mess is free, they have less incentive to prevent the mess in the first place.

There is no free way out of a disaster. That goes for ratepayers, too: If they don’t pay for a better system, they pay too frequently with no system.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/albany_power_vacuum_n66Fl4ZYpi2lgCw557kgUL

 

 
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