ITHACA, N.Y.—With Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disconnection moratorium ending this week, and future relief unclear, a NYSEG Ratepayers Union has formed locally, organized by a committee of the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America chapter.

Though state lawmakers are mulling extending the moratorium, Cuomo’s ban on disconnections only lasts until March 31. It is possible an extension will be passed in the interim, but if not, over a million New Yorkers could face service disconnection or interruption due to unpaid power bills during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to State Senator Anna Kaplan. In response, the NYSEG Ratepayers Union said it is forming to “serve as a union by and for ratepayers to protect our dignity and advance collective power,” reminiscent of the locally formed Ithaca Tenants Union that debuted last year.

“Struggling ratepayers in Ithaca and throughout the state are waiting on edge, as state officials prepare to steal the heat that warms our homes and our stoves, the electric that lets us see, work and attend school, and the water that literally enables our survival,” the union’s announcement states. “It is clear neither Cuomo nor the PSC care to protect us.”

According to a release from the state legislature, more than 1.2 million people statewide have power bills that are 60 days late or more. The union has established a hotline (607-442-4958 by text or call) for those concerned about their power bills and is distributing a NYSEG Check-In survey form.

“We will stand with you as you face utility shutoffs, exorbitant bills, or general neglect from providers—regardless of your payment history and regardless of your credit score,” reads the group’s mission statement. “We have many ways to help, from organizing shutoff blockades, to help with what to do if you receive a shut off notice, how you can lower your bills through energy efficient measures, or understand your NYSEG bill better. As soon as you hear that you might be at risk of a shutoff, we want to know.”

While not addressing the formation of the union directly, when asked for comment a NYSEG official said the company is willing to work with customers who have not paid, though they must meet certain criteria to qualify for various protections and assistance, as more defined here. It is also unclear if the protections last past the March 31 moratorium date.

“NYSEG will work with any customer with an outstanding balance on their utility bills to develop a payment arrangement,” said Ridge Harris, a spokesperson for NYSEG. “Our intention is to work with all customers and provide these resources to avoid any service disconnections.”

The words may mean little for some area residents who still fear they will face service disconnection if they don’t qualify for protections. Organizers behind the new union provided a notice of disconnection to the Ithaca Voice that was sent by NYSEG to a customer on Feb. 11, notifying them of potential final termination for non-payment. The letter did advise the customer to contact NYSEG immediately “if you have experienced a change in financial circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic” so that NYSEG could provide them with options to avoid disconnection.

Harris did provide other information for customers “who may qualify” to apply for the Home Energy Assistance Program, designed to “help customers reduce their past due balances.” He also touted NYSEG’s Energy Assistance Program, which “provides a monthly bill credit,” and the Project SHARE heating fund program.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com