Queens Says Enough to “Con Man” Con Ed

Queens lawmakers held a press conference outside Queens Borough Hall on August 11 to demand Con Edison be held accountable for their response to power outages Tropcial Storm Isaias. Photo by Clarissa Sosin

State Senator Leroy Comrie (D-Jamaica, Cambria Heights, Queens Village, Hollis, St. Albans, Laurelton, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Hillcrest and Kew Gardens) didn’t want to call the utility company by its name. Instead, he stopped short at “Con.”

“Because they are conning us at this particular time,” he said to the crowd of reporters outside Queens Borough Hall. 

Comrie, Chairman of Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, was referring to New York City’s electricity provider Con Edison, also known as Con Ed. Last week, after Tropical Storm Isaias tore through New York City bringing down trees and power lines in its wake, 73,000 Con Edison customers were left without power in Queens. Tens of thousands of those customers would remain without power for days.

As of 7 p.m. Tuesday evening, exactly a week after the storm, more than 2,000 customers in Queens were still sitting in the dark. 

“We’re tired of the ‘Con Man’ and it’s time for the ‘Con Man’ to come clean,” Comrie said.  

Comrie was one in a group of more than a dozen Queens lawmakers who banded together on Tuesday to condemn Con Edison’s response to Tropical Storm Isaias. Queens was the borough with the most power outages and yet it received a slow, inadequate and unacceptable response, they said, which exacerbated the ongoing struggles of residents in one of the hardest hit boroughs in the city by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“As customers, we are grateful to the workers, but after repeated recovery failures, patience for the company has long expired,” said Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee. “The only thing reliable about Con Edison post-Isaias was its consistent failure to communicate accurately and effectively to the public. Power is essential, as we were acutely reminded during the heights of the pandemic. The restoration of power especially after a storm is a race against time for safety, public confidence and the preservation of livelihoods.”

The chaos on the wake of this storm is just the latest example of a long history of the company neglecting the borough. Time and again, the politicians said, Con Edison does not dedicate the resources that Queens needs for repairs in the wake of a severe storm

Assemblymember Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Broad Channel, Hamilton Beach, Howard Beach, Lindenwood, Ozone Park, Rockaway Peninsula), whose district was one of the most affected by the Isaias, said that the power outages contributed to the post traumatic stress in her district which is still recovering from being 87% destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Another storm could come next week, she said, and they were going to make sure that Con Edison had a better response.

“We’re a united Queens,” said Pheffer Amato to the utility company. “Now you’re going to have to deal with this force.”

The lawmakers demanded that Con Edison be held accountable for their lack of investment in updating outdated infrastructure to be more storm resilient by installing more of the underground power lines found in other parts of the city despite rate hikes in recent years. Neglect in times of need, especially after storms, is not new, the lawmakers said, calling the borough the “stepchild” of the utility company. 

“Once again we’ve been left behind and left in the dark,” said State Assemblymember Nily Rozic (D-Flushing, Queensboro Hill, Hillcrest, Fresh Meadows, Oakland Gardens, Bayside, and Douglaston), whose district was one of the most affected by the recent power outages.

Real changes need to be made to how the company handles emergency response, they said pointing to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 which devastated the city and the 2006 black out in Northwest Queens that left 175,000 customers without power for up to 9 days. Power outages and storm destruction are expected, especially now with climate change.

Con Edison should give rebates for the August electricity bills to all of the customers affected by the prolonged outages and for the customers to be reimbursed by the company for any costs they incurred because they had no electricity, they said.

As a for-profit company that cares about its bottom line, it is time for Con Edison to start putting the people of Queens first, said State Senator John Liu (D-Flushing, College Point, Whitestone, Bayside, Douglaston-Little Neck, parts of Bellerose and Hollis). 

“They are going to have to hurt where the bottom line hurts,” said Liu. “Cancel August bills.”

In an emailed statement, Con Edison said that they worked as safely and quickly as possible to restore power and that they evaluate their response after every incident. 

“There were more than 76,000 Queens customers who experienced outages due to Isaias; 900 of those customers are currently without power. The vast majority of the customers were restored by Sunday night. We continue to work 24/7 to restore remaining customers,” they wrote. “After every major storm event we perform a thorough analysis of what can be improved and we’ll do the same following the second worst storm in the history of our service territory.”

They did not say whether or not they were considering rebates and reimbursements for customers affected by the outages. 

The state legislature will be holding hearings later this month to discuss Con Ed’s response to Isaias. Similar hearings are being considered at the city level by Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) after four city councilmembers demanded he do so. 

The lawmakers said that legislation will be introduced to further regulate the utility –– including a proposal for a public takeover, a measure supported by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams

The company, which serves the largest city in the United States, needs to plan accordingly because electricity is not a luxury, said U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-Bayside, Flushing, Forest Hills, Fresh Meadows, Glendale, Kew Gardens, Maspeth, Middle Village, Rego Park), especially during a hot summer in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. 

“They are not amateurs,” Meng said. “Con Edison must do right by those who were impacted.”