Despite protests to the contrary, there’s a little bit of an urination contest, “for distance and accuracy,” as Mayor Chris Morrow put it, between the city staff and the Gardner Electric Utility Board (EUB).
Morrow said during a city council work session that he didn’t want the discussion to be a contest between the council and EUB. It wasn’t, but the discussion is a contest between who should hold power – city staff or the EUB.
Members of the Gardner City Council debated the function of the utility board during a lengthy work session on Oct.7. Council members praised the efforts of the board of appointed officials while agreeing to strip the board of most of its power in the future.
The council was placed in a difficult position. Since 2008, the EUB has run an efficient electric utility maintaining existing rates while building impressive reserves, or rainy day funds.
Holding money that they may not need or appear to be using came back to haunt the board. When the city’s budget needed a bit of padding, city staff recommended essentially taking money from the utility to make up the difference. There is room for debate about how the transaction occurred – with limited discussion between the council, staff and EUB – and whether the transfer was warranted at all. City staff said the EUB overcharged the city for years, and part of the transfer of funds from the EUB to the city would simply be a rate refund.
The subsequent uproar caused council members to take a closer look at the ordinance that created the EUB. Time will tell whether the council’s coming decision will be a wise one.
We certainly can’t fault previous councils for creating the EUB. The intent of the board was to allow the utility to function more like a business by setting politics aside in decisions related to the utility like rate-setting. And for a time, it appeared to work.
We never agreed that the utility should be run like a business. It simply isn’t one. The goal of a business is to make money, and a city-owned asset shouldn’t be run that way. If that is determined to be the final or appropriate goal of the electric utility, we would suggest that the utility be sold to a business, and the proceeds used to do benefit the citizens. That may be downtown beautification and functionality – say, parking to make downtown more walkable – or taking ownership of U.S. 56 Highway and making it a city road. It could be building a new park or civic center. The utility is a great asset, but if it’s run like a business it’s purpose is to make money, which is what the EUB did. The city shouldn’t be in business.
Allowing unencumbered funds to sit idle doesn’t work very well with so many bureaucrats eyeing in the pot. Staff wants raises. The parks department wants new trails, and the police want new law enforcement tools.
We don’t have a position on how the electric utility should function, but it was obviously time to have the discussion.