Outsourcing talk draws concerns

Published 7:21 pm Thursday, September 30, 2010

Staff Write

The atmosphere was energized at the City of Washington’s warehouse Wednesday evening as Mayor Archie Jennings held a town hall-style meeting with employees of Washington Electric Utilities.
The employees had concerns about proposals being considered to outsource management of the WEU system to Tideland Electric Membership Corp. or Greenville Electric Utilities, a move that could result in layoffs and a potential decline in customer service.
“The manager went into an explanation of why we were looking at the opportunity or the option of somebody else operating the system,” Jennings told a group of about 50 people. “We’re taking proposals on that. We think it’s incumbent upon us to do that just to see what the numbers look like. But they may come back, as the manager said, we may be operating the system better and leaner than anybody else could operate it. That’s a very real possibility because we’ve been cutting back.”
While Jennings told the gathering that all options to lower electric rates were being considered, he stressed that the push toward the load-management program was the fastest and easiest way for customers to reduce power consumption and lower electric bills. The city budgeted $300,000 to pay for the installation of load-management switches for WEU customers. The radio-controlled switches, placed on electric water heaters, heat pumps and central air conditioning, allow the city to turn off appliances during expected peak demand hours. Customers in the program receive credits on their electric bill each month.
“We’re trying to work on the load management now because that’s going to have an immediate impact,” Jennings said, pointing out that many customers don’t understand the problem. He urged WEU employees to help educate customers about the load-management switches, usage and energy audits.
“We’re all in this together,” Jennings said. “The electric company is our biggest business here in the city. It touches more people than any other thing that the city does, and right now, we’re in a tough spot.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to try to get these rates down. I think what we’ve done is we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t go any higher.”
Keith Hardt, director of Washington Electric Utilities, said he appreciated the open communication from the mayor.
“I’m glad they got a chance to hear from the governing body because I don’t want to give them perceptions, or inferences, or my opinion when they ask a question of who, what, when, where, why,” Hardt said. “They ask those of me, and I can’t give those answers because I’m not the decision-maker in this case.”
“They’re out in 100-degree heat in leather sleeves … in the sun with no shade for 10 hours a day,” Hardt added. “They just see this as one more thing coming down the pike and that was their concern. I hope that we can continue the communication. I hope this is a start.”
“I think the key is the honesty in the room,” Jennings acknowledged. “I hear them. and I know they’re concerned. That’s why I tried to get them to understand that though we’ve got concerns about how we approach this thing, we’ve got to understand that we have to effect that change together. We’ve got to do it.”