Letter to the Editor: County Charter Governing Utilities Department Is Broke – Let’s Fix It

Former County Councilor/ Never a member of the BPU

I respond to Ken Milder’s letter of Sept. 5.

The County Charter was passed nearly a half-century ago. The provisions governing the utilities department are flawed because they:

(1) do not allow effective oversight of the utilities operations by the council, which is accountable to the voters and the law for these operations,

(2) there is no way for the council to hold the utilities board or the utilities director accountable for mismanagement or poor performance, and

(3) most important, there is no way to resolve disagreements over policy between the council and the utilities board. It is high time these flaws be corrected; the proposed changes do so in a way that has the smallest possible impact on the operations of the utility department.

What Ken does in opposition to these changes is to resurrect a hoary shibboleth about the council that has been carefully nurtured in the utilities department and among members of the Board of Public Utilities since the founding. That is, that the council is peopled with greedy unprincipled politicians who can’t wait to “improper[ly] and imprudent[ly] use Utilities for General fund revenue.” Quoting Ken. And according to Ken and the shibboleth, it is the venerable charter and the noble utility board that have stood between the feverish council and the ratepayers all this time.

The utilities have contributed to the general fund revenue since they were acquired in 1961 and were given to the county by the AEC for just that purpose. The return has been a gentlemanly 5 percent of revenues and that level has never been controversial. These greedy politicians have not exhausted the tax sources easily available to them so why would they go pick a fight with the utilities? The only time in my 40 years around here that the council has taken the initiative on a utilities issue was the utilities acquisition projects in the 1980s when we acquired electricity generating capacity and started selling electricity to the DOE: these actions increased utilities revenues and kept rates lower over the long term for customers. The shibboleth has no basis in fact or history and is simply used as a scare tactic.

The fact is, the ratepayers do suffer because of the isolation of the utilities board from the council. The residential utilities infrastructure has deteriorated and the utilities board has neglected to initiate a process to set rates high enough to timely replace things like the 60-year-old leaky water main in my back yard. The initiative has to come from utilities, the council cannot initiate rate changes. 

The utilities board refuses to adopt modern technology to distribute audio or video of its proceedings, which are held in a back room at the utilities department. The minutes are brief and uninformative, and if you want to find out what went on at a meeting, rather than being able to go to the county web site and watch a video or listen to a recording, as you can for the council, the P&Z, the Rec board, and the T-board, you have to go to the utilities department and sit down with their computer and listen with a headset to a recording made in an obsolete format most people no longer have access to. If you want to speak at a meeting, the chair may change the public comment rules after you arrive depending on his mood or your demeanor.

Contrary to Ken’s assertion that the Utilities Board is above politics, just a couple of months ago the utilities board chairman took it upon himself at a council meeting to sabotage a utilities board recommendation, on behalf of a group of his friends. The utilities board failed to take action against its errant chair, and of course the council cannot take action because of the restrictions in the noble charter.

It’s broke. Let’s fix it.