by Jennifer Szulman
It has been more than a year since Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the East Coast, yet Brighton Beach leaders say Con Edison and local landlords have not yet fully recovered – and it could cost residents a small fortune due to ongoing billing issues.
A series of billing and infrastructural snafus, some on behalf of the utility company, and others due to landlords’ sluggishness with repairs, will lead to large future bills for many customers. That has local business and tenant advocates concerned.
Yelena Makhnin, the executive director of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District, said that Brighton Beach residents are concerned about their Con Edison bills since the storm damaged their electricity meters. Some residents have received bills as low as $20 per month when they’re used to seeing $80; others have received estimated bills or no bills whatsoever.
That means the company has not been billing for actual usage, and plans to make up the shortfall on future bills.
According to Con Edison’s Public Affairs Manager Sidney Alvarez, a future bill will consist of the months that customers haven’t been charged. It will be estimated on a case by case basis and calculated from each resident’s typical use of electricity prior to Superstorm Sandy. Alvarez suggested that residents stay in close contact with Con Edison for questions about bill adjustments, accommodations or payment plans.
Most of the billing problems stem from damaged electrical meter systems in large buildings, which some landlords haven’t remedied. When Con Edison finds that a meter has not been properly repaired, they may suspend billing.
“Building owners are responsible for making repairs, upgrades and modifications,” Alvarez said. “Once work is completed Con Edison will make the necessary inspections to service the area and issue the required orders.”
In large buildings, though, building owners aren’t the ones that need to worry about electrical bills, since those are handled directly by the residents. So there’s little incentive to make repairs, and some landlords are dragging their feet due to the high costs, Makhnin said.
“The landlords have to pay for it. They are not talking about $2,000 or $3,000, but a much greater amount,” Makhnin said. “Take into consideration the amount of money already spent [to repair boilers, etc]; they might see changing meters as an expense they cannot afford.”
Residents, meanwhile, are left at the utility company’s mercy.
When Brighton Neighborhood Association founder and local resident Pat Singer started receiving estimated bills from Con Edison shortly after Superstorm Sandy, she thought it was going to be a temporary way to cope with the aftermath of the storm. In April, Singer paid an estimated bill of roughly $17, as opposed to her typical charge of $80 to $150, depending on the season. Singer later received a letter from Con Edison saying that while they would still provide electricity to the complex, they were not going to bill her anymore until the meters in her 96-unit building are replaced.
The meters in her building are due to come soon, according to Singer, but she fears the “estimated” expense of her future bills.
“They’re going to have to pull the figure out of a hat if you don’t have a meter,” Singer said. “Of course they’re going to pull the figure out on their side, not on our side. They should waive some of these fees; it shouldn’t be a blow like this with one big giant bill. They shouldn’t have stopped billing. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Both Singer and Makhnin agree that this is a serious issue that needs to go beyond a “he said, she said” debate. Both women feel the government needs to intervene and Sandy relief money should be used to help the residents pay for the mounting costs.
“I’m not saying that the city, federal government or FEMA has to pay for changing meters, but there should be a way to give landlords some kind of incentive to help them a little bit,” Makhnin said. “I believe the city has to step in – not by issuing fines but trying to find a solution to help both sides. People should not have to choose, especially elderly on a fixed income, between paying Con Edison bills and buying food.”