CHERRY HILL – The leader of the statewide African-American Chamber of Commerce is urging New Jersey’s largest utility not to forget about minorities when undertaking its proposed five-year, $3.9 billion-dollar infrastructure upgrade.
Chamber CEO and President John Harmon prepared remarks for the Board of Public Utilities about the stake he said the state’s 1.2 million African-Americans and 66,000 African-American businesses have in PSEG’s Energy Strong program of post-Superstorm Sandy improvements.
“We seek to ensure that our constituency is an equitable part of New Jersey’s economy,’’ Harmon said, “contributing to its competitiveness through educational, workforce and supply chain initiatives which favorably impact our economic standing, growth and sustainability.”
The state Board of Public Utilities on Monday held its third set of hearings into the pros and cons of PSEG’s proposal to modernize gas mains, raise and relocate electric substations, invest in smart grid technology and make other improvements, as well as into the rate hikes it will necessitate.
Harmon wants BPU to remain cognizant – as it considers whether to approve the rate hike – of how economic changes have an impact that is exponentially greater on minorities.
“This component of New Jersey’s population historically has systemic unemployment at levels two or in some cases three times New Jersey’s average,” he said.
While business groups in general have been strong backers of PSEG’s proposed upgrades because of the jobs they will create and the storm protections they will provide, Harmon has several suggestions for BPU as it weighs approvals for the utility’s proposal.
Among other things, he is urging BPU to ensure transparency in filling job openings, develop fairness in the rate structure for low- and fixed-income residents, allow participation by non-union firms, and establish an independent monitoring system.
At the hearings held in different regions of the state, BPU commissioners have heard consistent arguments from the two sides of the issue.
While supporters say the nearly $4 billion program is necessary and affordable, opponents say it will burden the ratepayers least able to pay for it: seniors. In addition, environmentalists say PSEG’s proposal does not go far enough and should include more renewable and distributive energy technologies.
The BPU may hold further hearings next January into the criticisms of the program lodged by the Division of Rate Counsel, which serves as a taxpayer advocate. A final decision might be rendered sometime in the first quarter of next year.