Public weighs plan to raise National Grid's delivery rates

National Grid wants to raise delivery rates for infrastructure updates. Business leaders applauded the plan at public hearings Thursday. Opponents said struggling residents can't afford to pay higher gas or electric delivery rates.

Syracuse (WSYR-TV) -- National Grid wants to raise delivery rates, promising to improve infrastructure.

National Grid filed a proposal with the Public Service Commission (PSC) on April 27, 2012 requesting electric and gas delivery rate increases totaling $174.4-million.

The request comes at a time when old electric surcharges that have been in place for years are set to expire and some customer credits can be applied. That softened the increase for customers, so total electric bills would go down 1.7-percent and total gas bills would rise 2.4-percent.

In December, PSC staff offered a joint proposal that established a rate plan for three years, staggering the percentages and revenues.

Protestors would like to see the surcharges dropped and the credits applied outright, lowering utility bills across the board.

The approval process requires months of negotiations, a review by the Public Service Commission and public hearings. Thursday afternoon roughly 40 people gathered at Fowler High School for one of two hearings. Members of the Central New York Workers Council held signs asking the PSC to "protect the public, not utility profits".

"A lot of people can't afford it. They don't know whether they're going to heat, eat or pay for their medication," said Ann Reynolds with the Central New York Workers Benefit Council.

Later, at Onondaga Community College, visitors passed through an atrium named after National Grid, as they made their way to an evening hearing. Business leaders who spoke out in support of the utility said there are many signs of economic development spurred by National Grid. Mike Treadwell with Operation Oswego County said the delivery rate hike proposal is fair and helps businesses plan their expenses.

"The unknown is a big factor in terms of economic development and cost, so it helps to stabilize the cost of power," said Treadwell who also works with the Oswego County Industrial Development Agency.

National Grid points to aging infrastructure to justify the delivery rate increase.

"A lot of this was really about infrastructure investment. We have thousands and thousands of miles of line across upstate NY. It takes a lot to make sure that they are maintained well and that we continue to invest in that," explained National Grid spokesperson Patrick Stella. "We've seen a lot more storm activity in the past few years. We've seen many major storms in NYS and we want to make sure our infrastructure is ready for that and we need the funding to maintain our lines."

Under the proposal, PSC commissioners could vote in March allowing a rate increase to take effect on April 1, 2013.

"Everyone has to tighten their belts, even National Grid. If I have got to tighten my belt and he has to tighten his belt, so does National Grid," said Lester Billips, Jr., who opposes the rate hike.

The law tells commissioners to weigh both sides; defining fair is the challenge.

"One of the things that we have to take into account is age old Supreme Court decisions that say we have to give them the opportunity, not the guarantee, but the opportunity to earn a fair rate of return on the assets that they put into public service," said PSC Commissioner Gregg Sayre.

The PSC will host two more hearings on January 24, 2013. They will be held at 2:00 p.m. in Cheektowaga, NY and at 6:00 p.m. in Williamsville, NY.

Residents who can't attend the hearings can call the PSC's Opinion Line at 1-800-335-2120.  Press "1" to leave comments.

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