BUFFALO, N.Y. - State regulators appeared in Buffalo on Tuesday as they continue to review National Grid's proposal for increased electric and natural gas rates, a move that could force some customers to pay about nine extra dollars each month for utilities.
The Public Service Commission, a state agency responsible for oversight of utility companies, held hearings at the Central Library in downtown Buffalo as a part of its lengthy approval process. By next spring, the commission's five members must decide whether National Grid can implement its rate hike, which would raise the average residential electric customer's monthly bill by $8.93 and the average natural gas customer by $8.70. If approved, the new rates would take effect in April 2018.
Steve Brady, a spokesperson for National Grid, said the rate increase is necessary to fund infrastructure upgrades and improvements. The company is seeking almost $331 million in order to modernize its systems, some of which are in desperate need of repair.
But the proposed rates infuriated a small group of protesters and community organizers. On Tuesday evening, the group "PUSH Buffalo" organized a rally of about two dozen people outside the library during the Public Service Commission's public statement hearing, calling on the commission to reject National Grid's plan.
"Our question is, why are you asking people who can afford it the least," PUSH Buffalo organizer John Washington said, "to come up with the money you need to rebuild your infrastructure?"
In an interview before the hearing, Brady said he understands why low-income and elderly customers might be especially concerned. However, he noted that the proposal to the Public Service Commission includes a plan to triple the size of a low-income affordability program in order to offset the higher monthly costs.
National Grid proposes to cover an additional 50,000 people in upstate New York through these assistance programs.
"Many of those customers, if the case were approved as it's now been filed, would actually see a bottom-line decrease," Brady said. "We're very sensitive to the fact that we serve a lot of poor communities in upstate New York."
But Washington rejected that notion, claiming the rate increase will simply drive people further into debt.
"They can increase the amount of money that's in the pool for low-income programs, but that's not getting at the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the bill," Washington said. "So why not charge people less, as opposed to charge them more, and then take a small percentage of that and put it aside to help them pay their bills?"
Originally, back in April, National Grid had proposed an even larger increase for electric and natural gas customers before adjusting the proposal this summer.
Brady also pointed out that the rate increase could still be cut in half, if the company is able to negotiate with state regulators to space out the increase over a three-year span.
Brady said the extra $331 million is critical to keep National Grid updated with the latest technology. Some of its largest industrial customers have increasingly sophisticated needs and may be at risk if the company cannot fund improvements.
The Public Service Commission -- whose five members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the New York State Senate -- has held similar hearings across the state this summer. It must make a decision by March 2018, eleven months following the original filing by National Grid.