Public utility study fails in county vote

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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.”

Advocates like Metro Justice have waged a long campaign for public power in Monroe County. (Photo by Jacob Schermerhorn)

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.”

A few months ago, County Executive Adam Bello, who was recently reelected for a second term, came out against the study on the basis of cost and the complexity of creating a public utility.

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.

The study would have examined the process of buying out the power company, a prospect considered in other parts of the country, such as Winter Park, Fla., and Boulder, Colo., with mixed results.

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.

4 thoughts on “Public utility study fails in county vote

  1. Utilities should have been public property from the beginning. But they weren’t, and as the cost of doing so now is both financially and politically prohibitive, it’s time to move on to other issues.

  2. As a community we can stand united against commercial exploitation by foreign interest, but divided we will continue to pay more for worse service. This tragic vote has nothing to do with environmental issues, as the issue was broadly mischaracterized for the public. Efforts to gain local control of our infrastructure of all kinds should continue.

  3. Thank You, County legislature. While city advocates want a public-owned utility for various reasons, they do not comprehend the cost and complexity of implementing such an undertaking. And what the entire generation, transmission, distribution, and sale of electricity involves. I am gratified that more mature and thoughtful legislators prevailed in defeating this fanciful proposal.

  4. If the end to the privatization of RG&E was lack of time to study the proposal, I hope the issue is brought back with the necessary time for study, discussion, and an informed vote. If our elected reps vote no, then so be it. Then it would be up to the voters to support or reject a legislator based on this and their other votes.
    However, I find RG&E’s position troubling. If they really believe their position is the best for our community, why are they afraid of a bi-partisan study seeking expert testimony and exploring this issue from Enron’s rip off to documented problems with some public utilities. RG&E spending so much time and resources to stop our elected officials from even studying this issue tells me they do not wish real transparency. Why?

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