The electric utility board will probably become an advisory board. That was the consensus of a majority of Gardner City Council members following a lengthy discussion at a Nov. 4 work session.
City council members agreed to slash several powers of the board in early October, but Mayor Chris Morrow wanted the council to discuss a more long-term strategy for the Gardner Electric Utility Board (EUB).
He proposed seven options for the council to consider:
• Keep things as they are in which the EUB sets rates, can acquire and expand, hires and sets employee policies and sets electric rates;
• Modify the EUB so it operates as a fully independent board;
• Modify the EUB ordinance so the board operates in a more advisory fashion, similar to the Planning Commission;
• Dissolve the EUB and bring the electric utility under the direction of the city council;
• Establish a board of public utilities (BPU) with elected board members who would oversee electric, water and wastewater;
• Establish a BPU that would operate as an independent, appointed board;
• Establish a BPU that would be run as an advisory board.
“Can we get down to one of these to say this is what we want to study?” Morrow asked.
Council member Larry Fotovich said establishing a board of public utilities would enlarge the scope of the existing problem. At a previous council meeting, members learned that according to state statute does not recognize the authority of the EUB to adopt its own budget.
City officials and the EUB butted heads as the city was drafting its 2014 budget, late last summer. The EUB adopted a budget before the council completed its budgeting in early August. City staff said the EUB overcharged the city for electric rates for several years, and council members decided to balance the city budget by requiring the electric utility to furnish a rebate for two years worth of overcharges.
The budget debate raised questions over which entity – the city council or the EUB – had the authority to make that decision.
Fotovich argued that the elected officials of the city council should have control over one of the city’s largest assets – it’s electric utility.
Heath Freeman said he’d like to allow the EUB to maintain its independent status with a few changes to satisfy the legal concerns of the current situation.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Freeman said.
Freeman said he was disappointed that the work session was not a joint work session that included a round table discussion with members of the EUB.
It’s a concern shared by frustrated members of the EUB, who called a special meeting on Halloween night to discuss their concerns. Morrow and Fotovich attended the meeting, and Morrow was specifically asked why both groups – the council and EUB members couldn’t have a joint session.
On Halloween, Morrow told the board he hoped to have a more high level discussion about the long-term future of how the city’s utilities operate.
EUB members Mark Baldwin and Randy Gregorcyk attended Monday’s council meeting and were available to answer questions. Baldwin told the council that by operating as an independent board, the EUB can move quickly to address issues. An advisory board would likely have more red tape and move slower in reaching decisions.
“And you don’t have that political aspect,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if the city budget is looking bad, if an electric pole is broken, it’s got to be fixed.”
Council member Steve Shute agreed.
“I think moving the EUB to an entire advisory capacity would be a mistake,” he said.
However, that’s the direction council appeared to take as the lengthy debate wore on. Council members Fotovich, Kristina Harrison and Tory Roberts agreed that the council should consider changing the 2008 ordinance that created the EUB to eliminate the legal concerns. The changes will likely make the board more of an advisory one.
Council debates role of city utility board