The discussion probably isn’t over yet.
Though city council members reached a consensus to create a city utilities department and an advisory board to assist it, we have little faith that the decision will be a final one.
First, previous city councils have debated and debated how to best structure city utilities for at least the past 10 years. They’ve tinkered and finalized processes, but it never ends. A few years later, the tinkering and discussions begin again.
We’re not thrilled that the council has decided to create a department and a board.
Despite suggestions that creating one broad department may save some money due to economies of scale, we worry that a new department with heads of water, wastewater and electricity will instead cost more money. Already, city council is discussing the hiring of a utilities department director. We fear that’s just the start. We already have a director of public works, and for now, some of the duties appear to overlap.
During a council work session, council members said public works could focus on infrastructure – like streets, and things like storm water, while the utility department director would focus on water, wastewater and electric.
Here’s an example of how those two positions could lead to friction. In previous years, council has briefly discussed creating a stormwater department. City staff has called stormwater a “utility” in previous years.
Nothing wastes more money in a bureaucracy than competing directors building their own empires.
Speaking of bureaucracy, council’s decision appears to do little but create more layers of bureaucracy. Now utility decisions will be walked through city staff – potentially with at least an overview from two departments, discussed with an appointed board, before being brought before city council for a final decision.
Extra layers of bureaucracy typically lead to more costs.
Finally, we have some serious concerns about the powers of appointed boards. If they’re only responsibility is vetting decisions, we can live with it.
What separates a board like the planning commission from a board like the electric utility board was budgetary oversight and decisions. The planning commission serves more as a board of community standards. They don’t make recommendations about budgetary decisions and typically, their decisions have few if any monetary implications to the public.
Such isn’t the case with a board or commission on public utilities. We believe that’s what caused initial concerns and problems with the electric utility board in the first place. We believe that’s the underlying reason why every city council feels the need to tinker with the electric utility. The utility is sitting on a pile of attractive cash, and everyone wants a piece of it.
We also question the common perception that the electric utility board did the world’s greatest job ever. We aren’t saying they did a bad job. After all, our rates haven’t increased in five years.
That said, our rates were outrageous in 2008 when compared to the rest of the metro. Other utility providers are just beginning to catch up and even surpass our rates.
However, we question why that pile of money wasn’t returned to rate payers in the form of lower rates. Instead, the extra dollars were spent on things like radio advertising. That seems like an inappropriate expense for a publicly-owned utility. There was no oversight in how the appointed electric utility board spent ratepayers’ money. That was a problem, and hopefully the proposed changes will fix it.
The jury is still out on whether this new structure of a utilities department and accompanying appointed citizen board will be better. Some of our concerns may be mitigated depending on how the final ordinance that creates the department and board is drafted.
We only hope that the new structure will work well enough to end the conversation.