How an Upstate Town Took Back Its Power

Two men in hard hats work on a utility pole from cherry picker buckets in Massena, New York.
Crew members replace a utility pole in Massena, New York, on May 11, 2023. | Colin Kinniburgh

Massena residents fought the local utility to bring their electric grid under public control. Forty years later, they say it’s still paying off.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   June 21, 2023

It was May 1974 and the Massena Observer’s printing press was running overtime. Splashed across the front page were the results of a groundbreaking referendum. A columnist wrote that “no other news story has stirred the imagination” like this one: public power.

Residents had voted two to one to bring their electric utility under public control. That would mean buying out the local grid from Niagara Mohawk, the power company then serving much of upstate.

Framed photo of the front page of The Massena Observer on May 31, 1974.
The Massena Observer front page on May 31, 1974. | Colin Kinniburgh

It took another seven years of legal battles and two more referendums before Massena flipped the switch to a new, city-owned utility. When it finally happened, in May 1981, utility bills dropped by a quarter. The town hasn’t looked back since.

Opponents feared Massena would set off a domino effect, and towns throughout New York would wrest control of their grids from the likes of Con Edison and National Grid. But they didn’t — and today, even as progressive climate advocates lead a new fight for public power, Massena’s story remains little known.

“That’s what makes Massena so unique — that we saw it through,” said Andrew McMahon, superintendent of the city-owned Massena Electric Department. Others have tried only to see the effort fall apart, he said. In Massena, “the town hung together.”

Many of the debates that animated Massena’s fight over public power are now playing out again in cities like Rochester and statewide: a well-funded pushback from the incumbent utility; an acrimonious split between unions; and the fear that a government takeover could leave taxpayers footing the bill with little to show in return.

More than forty years on, Massena — population now around 12,000 — still has some of the cheapest, cleanest electricity in the state. Its electricians are unionized and maintain reliable service in a region bordering Canada and often hit by harsh winter weather. To locals on both sides of the aisle, municipal ownership of the grid has come to seem like common sense.

Massena isn’t the only town with a public utility, but unlike most others in New York, Massena’s was created within living memory. Most such municipalizations — including in Plattsburgh, another town near the Canadian border — took place in the New Deal era. Massena sought to pick up the torch.

It started in 1968, after local history teacher Fred Cook was elected village trustee. He had family ties to Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who championed public power first as New York governor and then as president. Cook pointed to the massive, state-owned St. Lawrence hydropower dam in Massena’s backyard, and pledged on the campaign trail to study whether the town could recreate Plattsburgh’s model, noting that Massena paid more than twice as much for energy. The study proved highly favorable to public power. Local officials put the issue on the ballot, asking voters to approve $4.5 million in bonds to buy out the grid.

The incumbent utility, Niagara Mohawk, spent hundreds of thousands campaigning against the referendum. A public power supporter told The New York Times that the issue turned “neighbor against neighbor, relative against relative, just like the Civil War.” And once voters approved it in 1974, the utility only escalated.

Niagara Mohawk mounted a multi-pronged legal battle, culminating in a weeks-long trial in federal court. On the company’s side was the powerful law firm Shea & Gould; on Massena’s was a young lawyer named Eugene Nicandri, backed by a smaller national firm. Nicandri, who later became a judge and a New York Power Authority trustee, had taken the job as town counsel just a few years out of law school.

“We were going up against the big guys,” Nicandri said.

Eugene Nicandri stands outside the Massena Electric building in Massena, New York.
Eugene Nicandri took the job as town counsel just a few years out of law school. | Colin Kinniburgh

By 1980, the town had spent almost all of the $4.5 million voters had approved on legal fees — and had “zilch” to show for it, Nicandri recalled. Niagara Mohawk kept up its wide-ranging public relations campaign against the takeover; Massena couldn’t advertise. Autoworkers in the heavily union town sided with public power, but the utility’s unionized workers stood by their employer.

Still, support for municipalization only seemed to grow. A second referendum in 1977 saw the margin grow to three-to-one in favor. The town was locked in a much tighter battle in the courts, Nicandri said. But in December 1980, he got a call from Niagara Mohawk’s lawyer, inviting him for lunch in a private Syracuse club. The company was prepared to settle the case if Massena revised its plans, taking over a broader swath of territory including expensive-to-serve rural areas. That would mean going back to voters to ask for more money, but Niagara Mohawk would stay neutral.

A third and final referendum in March 1981, asking voters to more than double the bond issue to $10 million, yielded a five-to-one margin in favor. Less than two months later, Niagara Mohawk handed over the reins, and the Massena Electric Department was born. Rates immediately dropped 24 percent for residential customers and even more for businesses.

Today, the public power fight is at most a distant memory for all but a few Massena residents. But they still get the cheap power. And some of their neighbors are jealous of their lower bills — including former opponents like Ernie LaBaff, a prominent North Country labor figure who railed against municipalization in the 1970s. LaBaff, now 90, still lives nearby, but not close enough to be served by Massena Electric.

“I wished I was,” he told New York Focus. “You can’t beat what they’re getting in Massena.”

Brittany Horton, a server at Spanky’s diner, wasn’t especially impressed by Massena Electric — her bills are “not terrible,” she said — but vastly prefers it to the alternative.

“I have a friend who was looking for an apartment, and that’s one of the things you look for — ‘Not National Grid. Not National Grid,’” she said. (The British-owned National Grid serves most of the region, having bought out Niagara Mohawk in 2000.)

Brittany Horton stands before a counter wearing a Spanky's diner t-shirt.
Brittany Horton, a server at Spanky’s diner, said her bills are “not terrible,” but vastly prefers them to the alternative. | Colin Kinniburgh

Massena Electric’s standard rate for residential customers is around four cents per kilowatt hour, all charges included. That makes it some of the cheapest electricity in the country — largely thanks to NYPA’s preferential rates for municipal utilities. National Grid customers pay closer to 15 cents per kilowatt hour, on average.

Nicandri is quick to warn that recreating Massena’s model today would be difficult at best, particularly at a larger scale. The NYPA hydropower that allows for its rock bottom rates is already all allocated, and changing that would require a political decision from high up. And that’s without even taking into account the kind of resistance incumbent utilities might put up.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘Hell, we ought to set up our own electric system,’” he said. “Well, it’s not a snap.”

“We were going up against the big guys.”

—Eugene Nicandri, former Massena town counsel

A new generation of New York socialists is eager to take that challenge on. After years of campaigning, they succeeded this spring in passing a version of their flagship bill, the Build Public Renewables Act, which gives NYPA a renewed mandate to build clean power. But for many in the Public Power NY campaign, that’s just a first step: Ultimately, they want to see the state do away with investor-owned utilities altogether and replace them with publicly run ones. (Nebraska already operates this way, and voters in Maine are weighing whether to take the leap this fall.)

That branch of the campaign has been put on hold in New York, though, as the coalition has focused its attention on passing and implementing the BPRA. Public power organizers say they plan to hash out next steps over the summer. Meanwhile, a group in Rochester is pushing for a test run in the state’s third-largest city — but local leaders have yet to sign off on the study needed to start the process. Downstate, a commission is weighing the prospect of restoring the Long Island Power Authority to full public control by cutting out its current third-party operator, the New Jersey-based PSEG.

That kind of wrangling is familiar to veterans of Massena’s seven-year fight. But for most locals, public power is just a fact of daily life.

Tim Peets, a general contractor in Massena, said the public system brings a number of advantages. Among them is reliability: If repairs need to be made, “they’re right on it,” he said, and power rarely goes out for more than a flicker even in intense winter storms.

“We rebuilt almost the entire system since 1981,” McMahon said. And it paid off: When a major ice storm hit in 1998, Massena’s power was out for just two days, McMahon said. Niagara Mohawk took three weeks to fully restore service. (National Grid bought out the utility two years later.)

National Grid spokesperson Jared Paventi declined to comment on how the company’s rates compare with Massena’s, noting that electricity prices fluctuate like any other market, but said the company had a strong record of reliability. In the fiscal year ending March 31, “we achieved 99.9% reliability on our electric distribution and transmission networks across the state,” he said.

Seated portrait of Andrew McMahon, superintendent of the Massena Electric Department.
In Massena, “the town hung together,” said Andrew McMahon, superintendent of the Massena Electric Department. | Colin Kinniburgh

On a Thursday morning in early May, a Massena Electric Department four-man crew was out on a street corner, replacing a utility pole in a quiet residential neighborhood. It was about a two-hour operation, during which they cut power to six homes — a unique occurrence, according to a retiree living in one of them.

Outside, crew chief Dick Sheridan and his colleagues stripped the wiring from the decades-old wooden pole before hoisting it out of the ground with a crane and swapping it out for a new one. Two of the four men have been working for the utility for 20 years; the most recent addition joined eight years ago. Sheridan described it as a “rocking chair” job, with good pay and benefits.

In the 1970s, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers rallied with Niagara Mohawk to fight the municipalization push, fearing that union jobs would be lost. The union at a major local aluminum plant took their side, and together they were among the staunchest opponents of municipal power.

Man sits in a crane and looks up at the bucket in Massena, New York.
Colin Kinniburgh
Crew lifts a utility pole from a hole in the ground in Massena, New York.
Colin Kinniburgh

From left: Dick Sheridan operates a crane; crew members replace a utility pole.

A similar dynamic has shaped debates over public power today: Unions representing energy workers broadly opposed expanding NYPA’s role in the clean energy transition, citing stiff resistance from the authority in contract negotiations. An IBEW local representing utility workers in Rochester has also come out against the campaign for municipal power there.

But, then as now, labor’s voice was not unanimous. In Massena, the United Auto Workers — representing hundreds of local GM workers — fiercely defended public power. When it prevailed, Massena Electric’s linemen quickly joined the IBEW and signed their first contract in 1983. They still belong to the same local today.

Working for a public utility has advantages besides union wages, Sheridan said. Massena Electric’s linemen are required to live within the service sector — for accountability reasons — and do almost all of their work locally, which means they come home to their families every night, unlike other electricians who regularly crisscross the state for jobs.

“Municipal utilities are kind of a petri dish. It’s not always good to be small, but being small sometimes is advantageous.”

—Andrew McMahon, Massena Electric superintendent

Massena Electric also boasts an unusually clean power supply: Roughly two-thirds of the total power it sells come emissions-free from NYPA’s massive Niagara and St. Lawrence dams, McMahon said. That’s thanks to a longstanding allocation of hydropower from the two dams to New York’s 51 municipal and cooperative utilities.

But that allocation doesn’t cover all of Massena’s power. In winter, when residents crank their electric heaters, the utility turns to the state’s fossil-fuel heavy grid mix to close the gap. That gives them a taste of the same volatile prices that other customers face. In some cold months, rates can reach double what they normally pay.

The utility has been looking into ways it could boost its renewable share. So far, it hasn’t panned out, McMahon said. They looked into wind and solar, but local weather conditions aren’t favorable. They looked into new hydro, but they ran into permitting problems. Now, they’re considering buying into a clean power project further afield. Massena could also benefit if NYPA builds its own renewables, as it now promises to do.

In the meantime, Massena Electric runs an energy efficiency program, consulting with customers on how to weatherize their homes and helping them pay for it. The utility is also hoping to pilot a “thermal energy network,” connecting 20 homes to a shared, all-electric heating and cooling loop with the help of geothermal heat pumps. Massena Electric has pitched the idea to the state energy authority NYSERDA, and is also eyeing potential federal grants from the bipartisan infrastructure law.

“Municipal [utilities] are kind of a petri dish,” McMahon said. “It’s not always good to be small, but being small sometimes is advantageous.”

Besides the potential for experimentation, being small also means Massena Electric’s employees can’t hide when things go wrong. If someone has a complaint, McMahon said, he’s bound to run into them at the grocery store.

With the municipalization fight now distant, the utility’s appeal has long transcended partisan politics. The town board flipped Republican in 2021, for the first time Nicandri can remember. (Steady Democratic leadership throughout the battle with Niagara Mohawk had been crucial to the public power push, he said.) But even Republicans like town supervisor Susan Bellor have no qualms with the town’s model.

“They do an excellent job for us,” she said of Massena Electric. “They’re very transparent … and as far as I’m concerned, they save us money.”

Those savings are also a draw for businesses in a town struggling to recover from a wave of deindustrialization. The hydrogen producer Air Products has plans to open a $500 million facility in Massena by 2027, with the help of a 94 megawatt hydropower allocation from NYPA. The Gristmill Brewery, a trendy riverside gastropub, opened last August as one of just a handful of breweries in the state that run all-electric. (Most burn gas to boil the hundreds of gallons of water and malt it takes to keep the beer taps flowing.)

In 1981, New York governor Hugh Carey touted the statewide significance of Massena’s win. “It serves as a shining example which the State of New York commends and will be watching with great interest,” he wrote to local officials.

Four decades later, it remains an exception.

Support for this story was provided by The Neal Peirce Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting journalism on ways to make cities and their larger regions work better for all people.

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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