OP ED: ‘They. Don’t. Care.’– It’s Time to Get Tough in Hartford on Eversource & Optimum

Following the start last month of hearings in Hartford on Eversource‘s response to damage caused by Tropical Storm Isaias, legislators continue today with an informational listening session for a proposed bill to implement stricter regulations on Connecticut utilities. Wilton resident Bill Lalor has some thoughts on the matter.

Most of Connecticut has electricity and cable again–at least for now–but we should hope the current uproar over Eversource and Optimum [owned by Altice] will be impactful.

Recent history suggests otherwise. Many in Connecticut and New York who experienced the Superstorm Sandy recovery will recall a familiar fury amid the response following that storm. Statewide, politicians issued strongly worded press releases. There were hearings, committees, and meetings. There were even panels–important-sounding panels!–and proposals and findings and reports–how can we forget the findings and reports?

Yet soon enough, and despite valiant efforts on Wilton’s behalf, consumers were back to the usual: poor quality, rising costs, awful service, etc.

Then again, what does anyone expect?  Nominal “customer service” is one thing, but actual redress against Optimum or Eversource is a classic, Gordian Knot.  Fill out this form, send an email, call this number, press 1 press 2 press 3,  pr… SPEAK CLEARLY WE DIDN’T QUITE GET THAT, we have unusually heavy call volume, provide this, submit that. Repeat, return to the menu, hold. Or press 1 for, “Scratch your own eyes out.”

The process is meant to mean nothing, because none of us are “customers” of Optimum and Eversource, in any real sense. We are captive users.

The Eversource and Optimum customer experience is something like trying to find a decent meal at a New York area airport:  The few options are generally terrible and extortionately overpriced, but hey, we’ll take two of those greyish pre-wrapped chicken (?) wraps–throw in a few Snapples at $3.50 a pop, please; the kids are starving, we’re out of granola bars, and it’s a long flight to Phoenix.

What else are we going to do? And who do we call to complain? The switchboard at the home office megaplex of the multi-jurisdictional Port Authority and its board of governors appointed by two state governors? Sure! Call the customer service line, then press “1” or press “2” or whatever–press anything you’d like. It will not matter. You may as well call Optimum and ask for the Knicks’ playoff schedule.

There are two inescapable facts we ought to confront if anyone wants meaningful change. The first is that when no one is accountable, it is end-users who suffer. We are, “we ask that you please bear with us” subjects. We are Alanis Morrisette, circa 1996:

You took me for a joke
You took me for a child.
You took one hard look at my [account bundle]
And then played golf for a while.

(They. Don’t. Care.)

Forgive the cynicism, but we can all be forgiven for suspecting the new incarnations of “reform” and “accountability” promise more of the same. But there is no point trying to unwind the Eversource and Optimum knots. That is true even when we are promised shinier newer Gordian Knots, as in the past. As the legend goes, the knots ought to be cut.

The other inescapable problem for any useful reform of Optimum or Eversource is that there will be no useful reform of either, without actual political or market-driven accountability.

If this sounds familiar to Wilton, it should. Denigrating local accountability is a common thread among many bad policy ideas originating with our Hartford overlords. It is, many have said, one of the most troubling aspects of school regionalization proposals and new efforts to force towns to relinquish local zoning decisions to the Office of the Most Equitable and Just High Ministers of Central Command in Hartford.

Accountability is not a matter of political philosophy or abstraction. As Wilton has been reminded since March, while state guidance plays an important role, it is local and parent input and local, very direct accountability of decision-makers is indispensable. Just imagine the last five months–or the next 10–without local accountability for decisions affecting our schools.

Even pre-COVID, it would have been sensible for Hartford and its local enablers to prioritize the power and wireless grids over things like wrecking local schools, voting rights for convicted felons, and the sufficiency of air conditioning for incarcerated inmates. That did not happen, however–even after Connecticut teachers, students, and working parents had to stream vital content, hours every day, at home, indefinitely.

Hartford’s priorities must warm the hearts of Optimum and Eversource. But they now demand fixing, for the precise reason Hartford ought to leave our schools and zoning decisions alone:  Accountability matters, and it is the best route to improved outcomes. Let’s hope Wilton’s elected leaders in Hartford will support cutting the knot and delivering impactful reform.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Bill, everyone in town, and I think in the case of Eversource I am not too bold to use the term “everyone” agrees with your article, but it leaves one question. What specifically do you suggest Wilton should do? I don’t ask this to be difficult. I am really seeking ideas. I have written to the PURA but feel I am shouting into the wind. Lynne and the leaders of other towns have filed for standing, but I fear they will be ignored. Eversource has substantial and active lobbying resources protecting their cost plus status quo. The CT House Republican leader, Themis Klarides, is engaged to one of the senior Eversource executives. I do not claim expertise in energy management, so this is a real appeal for ideas. Any out there?

  2. Optimum is the only “true” data provider in town with down over 100Mbps. I think Frontier caps out at 30 Mbps which is insufficient for say, at home learning with three kids on chrome books. Optimum’s customer service has deteriorated since being sold to Altice.

    I have wondered why the other providers currently available do not offer similar speeds and why Verizon, Comcast etc. do not offer service in town. Ridgefield has or had Comcast.

    In terms of Eversource, is it typical to have essentially a single company for electricity delivery services? In a state with two health insurance options, I suspect a high regulatory cost favors an oligopolistic market structure. I would be willing to bet the heart of the issue is the same old tune of market mechanisms failing the consumer. Free markets solve problems, not government.

  3. We’ve lived in Wilton since February 29th 1996. So many years passed without any thought of needing a portable or all house “standby” electric generator. On the rare occasion that power went out it was back on in enough time not to ruffle any “customer feathers” or food to spoil in the fridge /freezer. In the last 6-8 years the “country quiet” one would hear outside during a power outage has been replaced by a cacophony of noise emanating from the ever increasing number of portable and standby generators. Depending on where you are, the sound can be deafening. HOWEVER, the many recent storms and associated extended power outages (5 -10 days) has forced the issue. Most dealers of generators are currently “out of stock”.

    While I suspect we will remain in Wilton just a few more years, the most recent storm, 7 days without power, a totally unprepared and dismissive utility leaves us no choice but to join the growing ranks of generator owners.

    Bottomline… weather is getting more extreme locally. Who ever heard of such regular occurrence re: tornados etc in our area looking back in time. Eversource makes you long for CL&P, a dysfunctional utility if ever there was one… such a sad statement to make. Altice, is a foreign based company who bought out Cablevision from the Dolan family for big bucks only to make a bad situation exponentially worse.

    With this note completed, I’m off to finalize my generator purchase. Days ago, I arranged with our licensed electrician to get us on his schedule to effectively, legally, wire our house to operate on a portable generator.

    We must move forward expecting that more storms are to come, and long power restoration times will continue to be the normal. We must be self reliant! It’s been forced upon us by those who are supposed to have our back and best interest at the core of their mission.

    As for the political outcry from individuals to municipalities (many of who’s leadership tried hard to effectively represent local constiuents) to Hartford. History makes plain we should expect little more than an expensive circus show especially when talking about Hartford and State government oversight of the utilities. Well funded lobbies pressing the agenda of the utility over the interests of customers is the norm. And as for Optimum (Altice), the government has virtually no influence or leverage. Ask someone at PURA (state Public Utility Regulatory Agency)about that.

    2 cents from Wilton

  4. Perhaps we should contact these members of the Connecticut legislature who work directly for Eversource or its subsidiaries: Senate Minority (Republican) Leader Pro Tempore, Senator Kevin Witkos, Assistant Senate Republican Leader, Sen. George Logan (works for Aquarian, 100% owned subsidiary of Eversource) and Chief Deputy Senate Republican Leader, Senator John Kissel.

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