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Power Struggle: Groups Advocate for Utility Bill Relief for Those Facing Service Shut-offs

Scott Willis

  A coalition of Syracuse groups is urging residents to turn out at a public service commission hearing next week about utility shutoffs.  

51-year-old Patrick Dodrill of Syracuse has been without power since August.  He’s been looking for a job since April.   And, he's facing eviction.  He says public assistance just can’t cover rent and utilities. Dodrill lives alone, which makes him ineligible for utility assistance. 

"Because I didn't have any dependents and I am by myself now not making any money, that is why they didn't cover it. My job coach has been helping me tremendously, helping me to find work. I haven't quit and I am still trying. I won't quit until I get a job"

He’s one of thousands facing similar dire circumstances.  Agnes McCray says she’s received two shut-off notices.  She has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair, so she says having electricity can mean life or death.  McCray says heating assistance programs don’t help enough people.

"Barley enough people qualify for heat, but yet the need is still there. When you know that people are thousands of dollars in debt and they have to choose between heat and what to eat, that really says something."

McCray wonders if the public service commission could work with utilities to set up a subsidized payment structure like section-8 housing for low-income customers struggling to keep up.  Executive director of Syracuse United Neighbors Rich Puchalski recalls how national grid recently cut service to a 73-year-old woman on oxygen. 

" This is a crime. The crime is that National Grid didn't warn the tenant. When I asked her (National Grid) via email, she said we sent a notice to Clay, NY.  That is where the management company principals are. I think this is outrageous. This is a 73-year-old women, on oxygen, utilities were included in rent and she doesn't have an account with you guys"

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

Puchalski says the PSC declined to get involved, calling it a landlord-tenant dispute.  But he says it’s the commission’s role to go to bat for utility customers.  The PSC is proposing a new program to provide discounts for low-income households, but it would only apply to those receiving assistance through the heap program.  The coalition says most low-income residents don’t receive those payments, and that the proposed discounts aren’t enough to be helpful.

There are two public hearings  Monday at at the the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse.  The first is from 3 to 4 p.m., preceded at 2 p.m. by an information session.  The second is at 7 p.m.;  an information session begins at 6 p.m.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at