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Legislators oppose changes to National Fuel Program

by jmaloni
Tue, Jul 5th 2011 02:05 pm

Blast efforts by activist group to shift program to Buffalo

A trio of Niagara County lawmakers went on the record over the weekend opposing efforts by a Buffalo-based activist group to force radical changes that would effectively end popular programs benefiting National Fuel customers throughout Western New York.

In letters dispatched to the New York State Public Service Commission, Niagara County Legislators Kari Ann Bullman, D-Niagara Falls, ChereƩ Copelin, R-LaSalle, andBrittany Catchpole, D-Niagara, blasted efforts by community activist group PUSH Buffalo that target National Fuel and would end the utility's popular conservation incentive program, or CIP, in favor of programs that would almost exclusively benefit residents of Buffalo's west side.

CIP, which was voluntarily initiated by National Fuel in 2007, provides rebates for residential and commercial customers that choose to upgrade to energy-efficient appliances, as well as efforts to help winterize the homes of lower- and fixed-income customers. PUSH Buffalo is demanding that the rebate program be halted in favor of home rehabilitations on Buffalo's west side.

PUSH Buffalo has also demanded a $10 million "charitable contribution" from National Fuel to fund its activities.

"The residents of the Town of Niagara and Niagara Falls and their surrounding communities, in addition to losing the benefits of CIP, will now find themselves on the hook for the $10 million in funding that PUSH is demanding from National Fuel - which, really, is $10 million from National Fuel's customers," wrote Catchpole in her letter to the PSC. Also impacted are some portions of Wheatfield and Lewiston.

The PSC has scheduled hearings in Buffalo starting Wednesday to consider PUSH Buffalo's demands.

Catchpole blasted the efforts to shift funding to Buffalo, noting that plenty of Niagara County families are in need of help with home heating bills and conservation efforts as well.

"Our families here in Niagara County matter, too," Catchpole wrote. "They're the ones paying the surcharge that funds National Fuel's conservation incentive program, and they expect to see those programs benefit their neighbors, not strangers on Buffalo's west side."

Copelin echoed Catchpole's concerns, noting that CIP had helped thousands of low-income Western New York families.

"The conservation incentive program works," Copelin stated. "It has helped more than 1,500 low-income Western New York families. I urge the PSC to reject the radical demands being foisted on National Fuel and its Niagara County customers by PUSH. Niagara County's families deserve the benefits from a program that they and their neighbors pay for - not 'community organizers' in Buffalo. And Niagara County's families certainly shouldn't be forced to pay for PUSH's operating costs."

Bullman was equally concerned about the impact on families and businesses, noting that approximately 1,000 commercial customers had received rebates for conservation-minded upgrades.

"As a businesswoman, I am stunned that the PSC would even entertain PUSH Buffalo's demands," Bullman wrote. "Should the PSC enact these proposals, in addition to the many thousands of families that would be hurt, so would hundreds of businesses."

"Since its 2007 inception, CIP has benefited nearly 1,000 commercial customers by rewarding them for increasing their conservation of natural gas," Bullman continued. "That has included businesses in virtually every single community served by National Fuel. However, given PUSH Buffalo's record of only working to benefit the west side of Buffalo, it is doubtful that any business operating in the City of Niagara Falls would benefit. In fact, they would see their fuel payments redistributed to their competitors in Buffalo. And that is completely unacceptable."

Bullman also noted that this is not the first time that a state agency was placed in the position of potentially depriving Niagara County to benefit the City of Buffalo.

"Just last year, the Empire State Development Corp. actually used its offices, funded by the taxpayers of New York state, to encourage First Niagara Bank to relocate its high-paying headquarters jobs to downtown Buffalo from Lockport and Pendleton," Bullman wrote. "Should the PSC endorse PUSH Buffalo's efforts, and deprive Niagara County businesses and families of CIP, this would be a continuation of bad faith by New York state's government."

Catchpole seemed to capture the group's sentiments in her letter:

"Niagara County's families already pay enough for their utilities, whether they are customers of National Fuel, NYSEG, or National Grid. Were the PUSH proposals at this week's hearings allowed to go through, Niagara County families' utility bills would rise - even as a program that benefits our neediest residents was shut down, its funding diverted to a group only concerned with benefiting the residents of Buffalo."

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