By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
CAIRO — Utility bills and housing were among the topics raised by residents at a town hall meeting hosted by state Sen. Michelle Hinchey recently.
About 30 residents turned out for the town hall at Angelo Canna Town Park.
Hinchey, D-46, opened the meeting by explaining that the 46th State Senate District covers 2,000 square miles and includes all of Greene County. Over 1,000 family farms are housed in the district.
“We have the most rural district in the majority conference,” Hinchey said. “That puts us in a really important position to be advocating for the issues that we face in our communities and in rural areas because a lot of my colleagues have very different constituencies, so it puts us in a unique position of advocating for places like Greene County.”
Hinchey pointed to legislation she championed through the state senate.
“Myself and our office passed 53 bills through the state Legislature — that is either the most or top two most bills passed by a singular office or legislator in the entire Legislature,” she said.
The bills include those that have either been signed into law or are awaiting approval by the governor.
“All 53 bills passed with wide bipartisan support, many of them unanimously through the Senate, which says a lot of the things that we are fighting for are not partisan issues, they are issues that are actually making communities like Greene and rural areas better for everybody,” Hinchey said.
Among the legislation she pointed to was a bill expanding broadband access in rural areas.
“Because of that bill, we actually know people that have internet who didn’t before that bill was put in place and signed, including right here in Greene County,” Hinchey said.
Other bills she pushed through the state Senate expanded health care services; setting up the state’s first Rural Ambulance Task Force to identify what kinds of support rural ambulance services need; increased funding for farmland protection and FFA (Future Farmers of America); and codifying the Nourish New York program, in which the state purchases food from local farms and gives that food to food pantries and food banks.
“No matter who you are, where you come from, what your economic status, you deserve to have healthy, locally sourced food,” Hinchey said. “That is a part of health care, it’s mental health, it’s incredibly important to help our kids learn better. We codified that program, allocated funding to it and created a whole new market for our farmers.”
One piece of legislation Hinchey advocated for provided protections for abortion providers.
“That is the only bill that passed along party lines in a package of bills to support reproductive health, which is health care,” Hinchey said.
Increased funding for road infrastructure brought an additional $6 million to Greene County, and state funding created 145 new universal pre-kindergarten seats in the county, she said.
“That’s 145 kids who can not only get early childhood education and start to learn and socialize,” the state senator said, “it’s also roughly 145 families that can get back to work and start bringing more of an income into their families and into their communities.”
Residents were given the opportunity to ask questions.
Aniston Keff, of Cairo, inquired about housing.
“Housing has obviously been a big issue since COVID,” Keff said. “Tenants are very concerned about their future. Do you support the Good Cause Eviction bill to protect tenants that is pending in Albany?”
That bill would provide additional protections for tenants.
“Housing is a critical issue,” Hinchey responded. “One of the things we realized is that most of the funding for housing goes to more urban areas — it goes to New York City or the Big Five — Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Schenectady. People don’t think about communities like ours in rural areas having a housing crisis, but we do, and we knew it was coming, but the pandemic pushed it into overdrive even faster. My office led the biggest investment in upstate housing that our state has ever had because we need to do a lot to build more housing, to protect people from unconscionable rent increases and a host of things.”
The Legislature provided $50 million in new funding for Community Land Banks to rehabilitate so-called zombie properties that are in poor condition and off the tax rolls, and to convert them to affordable housing, she said.
A second bill created a funding stream for developers who want to build affordable housing of 20 units or less, Hinchey said.
Resident George Muldoon asked about Central Hudson and billing issues county residents have been experiencing, leading to a series of questions about the utility company from the audience.
“I own a business and I have customers that have said they called [Central Hudson] for eight hours straight, finally got a hold of somebody, and got cut off, and then they have to start all over again,” Charlene Muldoon said.
Others cited skyrocketing utility bills.
Hinchey encouraged anyone who is having trouble reaching Central Hudson to call her office and her staff will assist them. She also pointed to a pair of Public Service Commission investigations that are currently underway.
“It is off the rails what is happening in our communities,” Hinchey said. “We found out about the estimated billing problem a year ago when we were out in the community. We realized it was an estimated billing scheme with a totally proprietary formula. All utilities were directed by the Public Service Commission to provide people with bills every month — they used to do it every other month — and instead of reading the meters, what Central Hudson did was they sent an estimated bill every other month.”
Both estimated billing practices and rates hikes proposed by the utility company are currently under investigation by the PSC, Hinchey said.
Cairo resident Dorothy True asked about fees that are included on Central Hudson bills.
“If you look at your bill, there is a new charge under the line of fees — there are about seven or eight fees. You don’t know what they are for, they are all abbreviated, you can’t understand what they are or call and get an answer on what the fees are,” True said. “This month there is an extra fee, and if you add up all the fees, it’s more than $20 every month, depending on how much electricity you use. We are at their mercy. What recourse do we have?”
Hinchey reiterated that her office can help residents who are experiencing difficulty reaching out to the company and getting answers, and that the Public Service Commission is currently investigating the issues. The Legislature will also look at a possible law that could be passed requiring companies to be explicit in the fees they are charging their customers.