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Millions of New Yorkers can’t pay utility costs, and advocates are worried

Household utilities outside
[Daderot, Own Work] / Wikimedia Commons
[Daderot, Own Work] / Wikimedia Commons
Utility boxes are attached to the side of a house.

New Yorkers are dealing with a looming crisis that could shut off their utilities. Residents owe $1.7 million for unpaid electricity bills, according to a state advocacy group, and that’s not including back charges for water and internet.

The Public Utility Law Project of New York and AARP of New York are calling on officials to funnel public dollars toward the issue that’s threatening about 4 million residents.

Richard Berkley, the executive director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York, said the financial burdens amid COVID-19 are shining a light on utility costs. He said many low-income households are forced to stretch their limited budgets even further during the pandemic.

As long as the lights go on and the heat goes on and it works, like, nobody thinks about it,” Berkley said. “As one of my friends said, 'who knew that it would take a global pandemic to get people to pay attention to the boring world of utilities.’

Rent and housing has taken over much of people’s attention, yet the conversation on utilities relief hasn’t gained much traction. The Public Utility Law Project of New York and the AARP of New York are sounding the alarm to fix that problem. The groups are calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to direct COVID relief dollars toward the issue in her upcoming budget amendment.

AARP NY legislative director Bill Ferris said federal pandemic aid flowing to the state can help residents keep their lights on and taps flowing. Without it, he worried that worst-case scenario would become a reality for scores of residents.

When the weather gets a little warmer, we will probably see wholesale terminations from most utilities in the state of New York, and that will be very unfortunate for thousands, if not millions of people,” Ferris said.

Both organizations have filed a petition with state regulators to help ease the issue.

Hochul’s budget amendment is expected in about two weeks.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.