Public utility advocates press for approval of study

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Photo: Jacob Schermerhorn

Four days after protestors rallied for a public utility feasibility study, Monroe County lawmakers will vote on the matter tomorrow evening.

“The majority of Democrats support it, we just need one or two more votes to get this over the finish line, and then we need County Executive Adam Bello to sign the legislation once it’s passed,” Metro Justice organizing director Mohini Sharma said on Friday.

Advocates for the feasibility study say it will prove that a nonprofit public utility would work for Monroe County to lower rates, as has been the case in Fairport and other municipalities. Other concerns they cite include Rochester Gas and Electric’s widespread billing errors, the effects of climate change, and corporate greed.

Those who oppose the move argue a public takeover would be costly and ineffective and that RG&E is a valuable economic development asset.

In a November 2023 guest opinion piece published by the Beacon, RG&E CEO Trish Nilsen called the company “an integral part of the Rochester community,” stressing its 800 local employees, charitable donations, and tax revenue to the county. Former Mayor Bob Duffy, who serves on the board of Avangrid, the parent company of RG&E, has also been supportive of the company in the past.

Representatives from a number of local unions agree. A joint statement from Local Laborers’, IBEW, Upstate New York Operating Engineers, Rochester Building and Construction Trades Council, and Civil Service Association , urges legislators to vote against the study.

“Proponents of this issue have yet to acknowledge the strong opposition coming from local and state unions, and on behalf of our workers, individuals that would be directly impacted by a government-controlled utility system, we believe it is critical for our collective voice to be heard,” the statement reads. “If advanced, a proposal supporting government-controlled power in Monroe County would risk efficiency, create higher rates for residents, and seriously impact the union workers represented by our organizations.”

Metro Justice and others including a number of unions, community organizations, and climate justice and faith-based groups, instead claim the company has drained money from the region.

“In 2021 alone, we collectively paid RG&E over $900 million, and RG&E’s shareholders pocketed ~$100 million in profit,” reads a statement from Metro Justice’s website.

Bello has criticized RG&E in the past, publicly stating it has to improve service, billing and customer issues. However, he is opposed to the study and possibly the entire prospect of a public utility.

“Creating a public utility is an extremely complex issue that is beyond the scope of Monroe County,” Bello said last year. “It could have billions of dollars of implications for taxpayers. RG&E is the largest property tax payer in the county, contributing annual taxes north of $100 million to the county, city, towns, villages and school districts.”

Much of the protestors’ ire was therefore directed at the county executive, who, along with two Democratic legislators, needs to flip to their side.

In November 2023, an attempt at a public utility study failed in a 17-12 vote due to three dissenting Democratic county legislators: Michael Yudelson, John Baynes, and Howard Maffucci. Since the proposal’s reintroduction, Metro Justice says Baynes has switched to supporting the study, while Yudelson and Maffucci are still opposed.

The study would examine the complex 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 year failed at the ballot box.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. 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]

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