Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Mayor of Syracuse, has called for a municipal power system to lower electric rates and make a rapid transition to 100% clean, renewable energy.
Hawkins also stated his support for a publicly-owned community broadband system (internet, cable TV, phone) to provide faster, lower-cost service than the corporate telecoms have.
Hawkins said the city’s sidewalks should also be municipalized, with the Department of Public Works taking responsibility for sidewalk snow removal and maintenance like it is for city streets.
“Public utilities are the public avenues of private commerce. Publicly-owned utilities will lower the cost of living and doing business in the city and improve the quality of our infrastructure,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said public ownership and democratic control of natural monopolies like energy distribution lowers costs by operating to meet the need at their real costs rather than allowing monopoly rent extraction to maximize high executive compensation and share earnings for absentee owners.
As an interim step, Hawkins supports Community Choice Aggregation to give the city the power to choose renewable energy sources and support the market for their expansion. CCAs, prevalent on the West Coast, are now permissible in NYS, with Westchester County starting the first one more than a year ago.
“The climate crisis is the greatest threat facing humanity. We have to transition to clean energy as soon as possible. The climate science tells us we need to do it by 2030 to prevent catastrophic global warming. In Germany, which is a world leader in making the full transition to renewable energy, local public power systems have driven the transformation,” said Hawkins.
More than 50 communities across New York State already have public power, offering significantly lower electric rates than the investor-owned utilities. The service and delivery charges under municipally-owned power system in the adjacent Village of Solvay are one-third what Syracuse residents pay to National Grid. The rates in Onondaga County’s other public power system in the Village of Skaneateles are one-quarter of what Syracusans pay.
“A public power system in Syracuse would enable the city to build and purchase its own clean, renewable energy sources for electricity, heating, and cooling and the smart grid infrastructure needed to accommodate distributed nature of renewable energy sources,” Hawkins said. He added that it could all coordinate the financing and development of community-owned solar and wind in a way that includes the participation by low- and moderate-income consumers who often find themselves gentrified out of such initiatives when they are privately initiated.
Hawkins also supports mandating cost-effective energy retrofits to reduce the carbon footprints and energy costs for buildings. He said a public power system could provide affordable, long-term financing for the initial retrofitting costs of ground-source and air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling buildings. The financing would be repaid over time by the savings from heat pumps compared to heating by gas and cooling by electric air conditioners.
The public power system would finance the construction of many forms of community energy projects. Rooftop solar and small-scale wind shared by a group of households with different solar and wind exposures could be built with the public power system financing the upfront costs and the households paying them off over time out of savings from lower-cost renewables.
“Syracuse is lagging behind other cities in its telecommunications. A modern city should have high-speed fiber optics and a wifi hotspot in every neighborhood to close the class-based digital divide. Instead, many of our poor and working-class families have been priced out of cable TV and internet access by Big Telecom. Businesses that require high-speed connectivity, like Amazon seeking a site for a second headquarters, look elsewhere,” Hawkins said.
The Time Warner franchise agreement with the city expired ten years ago in 2007. Time Warner (now Spectrum) failed to live up to its obligations to provide the Public, Educational, and Government (PEG) channels and community media production facilities that most other cities have. Time Warner has not negotiated in good faith for a new franchise agreement with the city because the state Public Service Commission routinely renews the old agreement every three months. In February 2017, New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against Charter Communications, parent company of Spectrum, alleging that the cable and internet provider failed to deliver on promised internet speeds and reliability.
Regarding PEG channels and community media production, Hawkins noted that Syracuse city spent over $100,000 for a needs assessment in 2009-2010, which recommended the creation of a community-controlled nonprofit organization, similar to ones that function well in Ithaca and Baldwinsville, to be funded by franchise fees. Hawkins said the city should demand that funding of a community-controlled media organization be put in any new franchise agreement to provide programming, staffing, and training in all forms of community media, including cable channels devoted to Public Access, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) programming, community radio, community newspapers, and web-based media.
Verizon was given permission by the city in 2005 to build FIOS lines throughout the city without securing a franchise agreement. In 2010, after extending the fiber-optic phone and internet to the more affluent east side neighborhoods, Verizon stopped.
Public broadband would be an option, not a monopoly, Hawkins said. He would still encourage Spectrum, Verizon, and satellite providers to compete for customers. But without the public options as a yardstick and bargaining lever on franchise agreements, he said, the city will continue to be underserved and overcharged by the big telecom corporations.
“The old way of fining property owners for failure to maintain and remove snow form sidewalks has been a failure for decades. The city doesn’t even do a good job of clearing sidewalks in front of its own properties,” Hawkins said.
He said it is time for the city to charge the Department of Public Works with responsibility for the sidewalks as it is for the streets.
Sidewalk snow removal is assumed by municipal government in Rochester NY, Burlington VT, Fairbanks AK, and many other cities and towns. Hawkins said the costs could be covered by modest frontage or premise fees. One estimate for sidewalk snow removal put the cost at $7 to $10 per premise.