Despite advocates rallying for months, the allocation of $1 million in Monroe County’s budget for a public utility study will not move forward.
The proposal was defeated, 17-12, in the Monroe County Legislature on Tuesday. Rochester City Council approved $500,000 in funding this summer, but it was contingent on the county also contributing funds.
Advocates with the Rochester for Energy Democracy Campaign as well as supportive legislators, all Democrats, argue that Rochester Gas and Electric has not been meeting the community’s needs. They cite rate hikes, widespread billing errors, effects of climate change, and corporate greed as reasons for a public takeover.
“While Metro Justice has been gathering thousands of petition signatures and lobbying county leaders, RG&E has been making sure its ‘regulators’ in Albany will let them raise our community’s rates again!” reads a statement from social justice group Metro Justice, which has been working on this campaign for nearly four years. “This not only shows RG&E’s corporate greed, but also Albany’s inability to protect the public from monopolies like RG&E.”
Before the vote, Democrat legislator Susan Hughes-Smith voiced her support for the proposal.
“Our climate has been destabilized. Continuing the status quo has far-reaching geopolitical, economic, and human health consequences,” she said. “We owe it to the young adults and children in this world to do what we can do to reverse direction.
“There will be no stable future without an end to the use of fossil fuels. The very least we can do is to fund a study to explore an alternative to a system that is aggravating the crisis.”
Republicans who voted against the measure acknowledged there are legitimate issues with RG&E and its practices. However, concerns about cost, the extended timeline, perceived government overreach or inefficiency, and a lack of widespread need for this across the entire county overrode those issues.
“The fact of the matter is that the last time (a private utility went public), it took 12 years. So while I agree it would be nice to have something good to give our constituents, we’re looking at 24 or 25 years,” remarked Republican lawmaker George Hebert. “I’ll probably be dead by then.”
“Prior to this, I received a couple hundred emails (on this subject), and I checked each one of them to make sure they were actually a constituent who lived within my 35,000-person district. How many were actually in my district? One,” he continued. “The rest of them came from the city. So, I would encourage them to make a public utility in the city of Rochester, because that’s where the vast majority of those messages came from.”
Democrats Michael Yudelson, John Baynes, and Howard Maffucci also voted in opposition, not because of the underlying philosophy, but instead due to the expedited political process. All three indicated interest in the plan, but said they required more time to consider the issue.
“There’s no doubt that RG&E has failed this community. I hope to be able to vote for a study at some point and to continue this discussion,” Yudelson said. “However, the problem I have with this referral tonight is that normally this would go through the committee process for closer examination before voting on a referral. In this case, it’s a referral we’re just now seeing in the past few hours.”
In a statement released today, Metro Justice expressed disappointment with the results and the three Democratic legislators who voted against the allocation. They pledged to continue pushing this issue, hinting at further action when the new legislature takes office in January, 2024.
A survey from Data for Progress suggests that a majority of Americans would like to have a publicly owned utility as their electricity provider. However, while Maine ranks in the top three states for the frequency of power outages per customer, a referendum to pursue a nonprofit power utility last month failed at the ballot box.