City Council has allocated up to $500,000 toward a public power utility feasibility study. The vote comes after numerous complaints against Rochester Gas & Electric and a concerted multi-year campaign led by Metro Justice.
“We’re really grateful for the City Council to lead tonight and actually reserve funding for the study,” said Metro Justice organizer Michelle Wenderlich.
The bill stipulates that the city has no interest in seeking a study on its own.
“This will require other government entities to lead, and in no way will the city of Rochester initiate a study or RFP on its own,” said City Council President Miguel Meléndez, as he introduced the resolution. “The parameters are intentional, as we should not ask our constituents to bear the burden of a large study at a time in which they are the most impacted ratepayers in the RG&E ecosystem.”
Through a resolution of budgetary intent, a tool used to allocate unspent money at the end of the fiscal year, the city will extend a maximum of $500,000 towards a feasibility study. The city will only contribute an amount proportional to its population using 2020 census data. If the funds are not used by the end of next fiscal year, the money goes back to Council.
Advocates now need to get Monroe County on board to launch a study.
“We have the money from the city,” Wenderlich told supporters after the vote. “We need the money from the county. We need them to actually sit down at the table with us and make this real.”
Nearly 100 advocates waited to fill the council chamber on June 20. Eventually, the gallery was filled with red and green shirts representing Metro Justice and RG&E, respectively. Limited space forced at least 40 Metro Justice advocates to listen to the meeting in an overflow area. Patricia Nilsen, president and CEO of RG&E and NYSEG, was also present.
Before voting, some Councilmembers spoke in favor of the resolution.
“I know we started talking about this over two years ago and you have worked so hard and so diligently and I just admire the work that (Metro Justice has) done and the research that you’ve put into this,” said Mary Lupien, Council vice president, before the vote. “So, I’m very proud to support this legislation.”
Councilmember Stanley Martin said, “I want to give a huge shout out to the constituents who came to Council, who wrote to us, who called, who said enough is enough, something is wrong with RG&E, and let’s take a first step and understand if it’s possible for a municipal public utility.”
The vote was met with cheers and applause. Advocates then moved outside dancing and chanting, “A better world is possible! The people are unstoppable!” and “Whose grid? Our grid!”
“Our position has been and always will be that a government-controlled utility in Rochester is not the answer for the citizens of Rochester,” Nilsen said after the allocation.
She argued that a public utility would deprive the region of $160 million in annual tax revenue while costing taxpayers billions to acquire RG&E’s infrastructure and increase rates. The transition to a public utility would also slow planned resiliency and climate-readiness work, she said, citing Boulder, Colo.’s municipalization effort as an example.
Metro Justice hopes to continue asking the Monroe County Legislature to get on board, which could be an uphill battle. On Wednesday, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello issued a statement against funding a study, citing RG&E’s status as the largest property taxpayer in the county.
“RG&E must improve their service, billing and customer issues,” Bello said. “I have advocated for that improvement by opposing the RG&E rate increase directly with the Public Service Commission. I have also met several times with the new local management and with the CEO of AVANGRID to address the legitimate concerns of Monroe County residents. However, creating a public utility is an extremely complex issue that is beyond the scope of Monroe County. It could have billions of dollars of implications for taxpayers.”
Bello does not believe spending $1 million on a feasibility study is warranted.
Metro Justice expressed disappointment at Bello’s take on the study, but hopes to work with him to resolve misunderstandings.
“The public wants an alternative to the multinational corporate mismanagement of RG&E and we are going to keep fighting until we get it. We call on the County Executive to reconsider the facts and his position, and look forward to working with the County Legislature – who have the ultimate authority on whether to authorize funds for a public utility study, ” Metro Justice’s statement reads.
Henry Litsky is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and photographer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].