There should be many benefits of owning a municipal utility, Mark McDonald said, but the city of Independence is not in a position to enjoy them.
McDonald, vice chairperson of Public Utilities Advisory Board, a volunteer group of appointed city advisors, this week moved to recommend the city manager's office explore a potential sale of Independence Power & Light. The motion passed 4-2.
The recommendation is not binding and would still need the City Council's nod before the city even looks into the matter. Furthermore, the ultimate transaction might require a voter-approved change of the City Charter, which would not be a short process.
After learning of the PUAB recommendation, Mayor Eileen Weir said she has “never” been in favor of selling IPL, though she would consider an evaluation of the pros and cons.
“It's a huge asset, and we'd better figure out a way to make it work for us,” Weir said.
With all of the recent issues connected with Power & Light – higher-than-neighbor rates, the new utility billing system's extra-bumpy rollout, questions surrounding the Missouri City plant decommissioning and community solar investment, and now the smart meter controversy – McDonald said IPL has become “a monster” and not because it's too big.
“The whole purpose (for the motion) is we need to get a handle on it,” McDonald said. “We're not getting anything for our money, and some action needs to be done for our ratepayers, and that's both on residential and industrial side.”
His motion was not an outright call to sell.
“We need to start investigating all avenues to get out of this mess – that's all that was,” McDonald said. “It's just that I love this city and want the best for the citizens of the city.”
PUAB Members Jerry Adkins, Larry Porter and Joseph Zsak supported McDonald's motion. Garland Land and Chairperson Jack Looney voted against it. There remains a vacant spot from Randy Vest's resignation and death earlier this year.
While Looney was a flat no, Land it would be premature to make such a recommendation but the matter could be revisited in a few months.
“I feel there is a lot going on now,” Land said. “We have the rate study report to come in. There is the closing of Blue Valley and how to replace the capacity. We have AMI (smart meters). We have a new general manager who is looking at ways to make IPL more efficient.”
“My feeling is we should first let those actions play out to see if rates can be reduced. If those actions fail, then we can visit the sale of IPL. To sell IPL will require community support, and a lot of thought needs to go into engaging the community.”
Weir acknowledged it's not the first time the question of selling IPL has been broached, but generally such conversations have been in the community and not amongst city staff of the PUAB.
“I think there's a frustration that IPL issues are consuming so much time and energy and our attention, both from our city manager and the council,” she said.
“We haven't leveraged it yet for the best as an asset to the community.”
Independence's city charter says there “shall be an electric utility department.” It also says, in part, that the PUAB “May recommend to the executive or legislative officials of the city, programs for the financing, use, ownership, service, operation, or franchising of public utilities operated within the city…”
Weir pointed out that for the council to even place a charter change before the voters, a charter commission must be formed to review and propose changes, and voters would need to approve forming a commission.
In addition to the smart meter controversy – the contract approved by a council majority is on hold pending a citizen petition to the matter to public vote – the City Council also is wrestling with a decision on closing the aging and rarely used Blue Valley power plant and selecting a power capacity source to replace Blue Valley. Long-awaited cost of service and rate studies are due from consultants in the coming months. Smart meters alone have been part of discussions in 34 council or PUAB meetings for the past few years, city records show.
“It's complicated, it's very complex, and it puts a lot of demand on our elected officials to make these really important, complicated, long-lasting, impactful decisions,” Weir said of IPL decisions.
“When you talk about it that much and nothing happens, people are frustrated, whether they're for it or against it. People would like to hear more about what we're doing with public safety, economic development, parks.”
All that said, Weir said she's making clear she's “not ready to go tack the 'For Sale' sign up.”