After two more hours of debate, city council still has yet to make a decision about the future of the Gardner Electric Utility Board (EUB). Though council members twice rejected a proposal that would create a more advisory role for the board, they continue to agree that part of the existing ordinance that created the EUB is at odds with Kansas statute. Under home rule authority, the council members could chose to charter out of certain statutes at odds with its EUB ordinance, however, the city can not charter out of three provisions that require that only city council members approve the city budget including utility rates, issue bonds and possess the power of eminent domain.
Council members discussed creating a Board of Public Utilities (BPU) during a work session on Dec. 16, but did not reach a consensus to create a new board to oversee the city’s electric, water and wastewater utilities.
Mayor Chris Morrow gave council members information about a board of public utilities in McPherson, Kan., however council member Larry Fotovich said he would like to see information about a board in a city that more closely resembles Gardner. Fotovich said creating a BPU does not remedy the legal problems with the existing EUB.
“I still the see the matter at hand is, do we tackle that or do we expand the problem?” Fotovich said.
Conversations between the mayor and Fotovich remained heated, throughout the two-hour discussion. Fotovich asked what staff thought, but no director-level employees offered an answer.
David Franks, a longtime city employee and now Gardner Energy employee, told council he believes the EUB model is working.
“How about we have staff get together and tell us if they think the EUB is necessary,” Fotovich said. “Don’t we usually get our direction from staff? We get recommendations from them, and I’d like to see what problem we’re solving.”
Morrow said Fotovich was being argumentative and unreasonable.
“I just want you to make your case,” Fotovich said.
Council member Heath Freeman appeared frustrated with the debate.
“We’re 40 minutes in, and we haven’t gotten one step forward,” Freeman said. “What do we want the EUB to be?”
A majority of members expressed interest in exploring the idea of creating a BPU, but they were not ready to pull the trigger on the idea of folding the EUB into a larger board with oversight of all city utilities.
“Trying to tackle all three is probably a mistake in the short run,” council member Steve Shute said.
Council member Kristina Harrison, who along with Fotovich voted twice to change the EUB’s role to more of an advisory one, said she would rather the council spend time figuring out what works with the EUB-model and expanding it to all city departments.
For example, through several weeks of debate, EUB members and some council members have said the electric utility must be able to move swiftly in purchasing commodities. There’s not time to wait for council meetings to approve expenditures. To resolve the issue, the EUB created a purchasing policy that allows Gardner Energy director to make purchases of up to $10,000 without advance permission of the board.
City-level directors in other departments are limited to $1,000 purchases without permission of the governing body.
“I think we’re doing a lot of re-work,” Harrison explained. “If there are things we like that the EUB is doing, we should be looking at those on a broader basis.”
Morrow said shifting city policies to align with successful EUB policies would lend itself to making the EUB more of an advisory board.
Shute said he prefers that the city charter out of state statutes that would limit the EUB’s authority to set rates.
“If we control and approve the budget, though, we’re still setting the rates,” Harrison said.
Shute said one reason he favors allowing the EUB to maintain its authority over Gardner Energy is that previous city councils have made poor decisions where utilities are concerned.
“You know how you fix that? The citizens vote them out every two years,” Fotovich said.
Fotovich said the EUB was created when the city’s governing body included four appointed council members.
“That was corrected by an election,” he said.
Currently, EUB members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.
“I’m still in favor of chartering out of the provisions where we have conflict,” Shute said. “I don’t think an advisory board is an option.”
He recommended creating a focus group that would include members of the governing body, city staff and members of the EUB to draft a proposal for a BPU.
Freeman and Harrison both requested experts in public utilities be brought in to discuss options with the city council.
“We haven’t made any progress,” Freeman said. “We need help.”
Council member Tory Roberts remained quiet through most of the debate.
“I always thought the BPU was the way to go,” she said. “I would love to get outside input in this.”