Ludlow Electric Board hears more ratepayer concerns

LUDLOW, Vt. – The Aug. 24 meeting of the Ludlow Electric Light Department Board of Commissioners began with a presentation from Ken Nolan, general manager of the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (VPPSA), explaining to the board and those present what VPPSA is, and what Ludlow gains from its membership in VPPSA. There had been concern from ratepayers at the previous board meeting in July, where it was discussed that Ludlow had been paying VPPSA to implement a geographic information system (GIS) project for several years, apparently without usable results.

VPPSA general manager Ken Nolan speaks to The Ludlow Electric Light Department Board of Commissioners. Photo taken from Okemo Valley TV broadcast

Nolan explained that VPPSA is a collection of small utilities throughout the State of Vermont, which provides services via aggregation of resources that would otherwise be difficult for small utilities to implement independently. For example, VPPSA monitors legislation and lobbies on behalf of its member utilities, constructs power plants of which member utilities may own shares, and provides IT support to its members. Ludlow is one of 11 current members utilities of VPPSA, the majority of which are in the northern portion of the state. Ownership of VPPSA is vested in its member utilities. “Ludlow is actually a partial owner [of VPPSA],” Nolan told those present.

Nolan acknowledged that Ludlow had opted out of the VPPSA GIS project, though he said in response to questioning that there had not been a contract between VPPSA and Ludlow Electric, explaining that the VPPSA Board of Directors – which is composed of one representative from each of its member utilities – had initiated the project with the consent of all 11 members, as a joint effort. Nolan asserted that some aspects of the project, for which Ludlow has paid over $75,000 to date, were usable. “Part of that [cost] was for licenses for software that you were able to use. I acknowledge…that we did not move in designing the system the way Ludlow wanted it to be designed quickly enough, but the data was there,” Nolan stated. Though ratepayers in attendance wanted to know if and how the cost of the GIS project could be recouped, Nolan explained that any refunding of the cost of the project would have to be taken up with the VPPSA board, of which Ludlow Electric Department manager Thomas Petraska is a member.

Concern was raised that Ludlow is currently contracted with VPPSA for its Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) project, with those present wanting assurances that it would not turn out the same way as the GIS project. The AMI project is being done in response to a multitude of state requirements. When completed, it would allow metering to be done remotely, without the need for manual meter reading, among other advanced functionality. Nolan told the assembled ratepayers that the GIS project is one of “30 or 40” projects for which VPPSA is responsible, the others of which he claimed have been successful, and that the GIS project is currently being brought back on track.

Responding to a question from foreman Brian Benoit about the repercussions of failing to implement AMI, Nolan stated that “Ludlow Electric only exists because it was given a franchise territory by the State of Vermont…if they ever make a determination that you’re not keeping up with what they want you to do policy-wise…your franchise [can be] revoked,” though he noted that this is a rare occurrence. Nonetheless, he said that increased scrutiny by the Vermont Public Utility Commission (PUC) could result, making things such as necessary rate increases more difficult.

The board then went into executive session to discuss a personnel issue, after which they returned and authorized a motion allowing the chair to issue a written reprimand to an employee regarding the matters discussed.

Other issues raised by those present were those of job descriptions and duties, safety and supervision, and the hierarchy of the electric department, specifically the removal of the position of superintendent. Several of these issues had been raised at the previous meeting, with Petraska telling those present that the department’s handbook was currently undergoing revision to reflect the changes in the department’s structure, and clarify the duties of its employees. Concern was also raised that Benoit was not himself a lineman, though he is responsible for supervising linemen, leading to what some saw as potential safety concerns. Commissioner Robert Brandt responded that this is also the case at Green Mountain Power (GMP). Ratepayer Steven Stariknok countered that GMP employees have access to greater resources when they are unsure of something, given the size of GMP’s staff compared to Ludlow’s. “If someone in a supervisory position doesn’t have electrical experience, they can go to someone that does before a decision is made,” Stariknok said.

The continuing issue of staff retention was also discussed. The idea of contracts obligating a certain length of service with Ludlow in exchange for training was again suggested, though Brandt responded that he was against this idea. “Do you want somebody working here who’s not happy?” Brandt asked. Several people wondered out loud why employees would be unhappy.

Some suggested that Ludlow Electric begin to deplete its $3 million reserve in order to pay its staff more and, hopefully, retain employees. This would, it was thought, have the added effect of causing the PUC to approve rate increases more readily, as the large reserve of cash makes the PUC hesitant to approve rate increases, despite the fact that Ludlow is currently operating at around an $800,000 deficit, according to the board. Petraska explained that the PUC does not consider future expenditure plans when considering approval of rate increases, but looks only at actual expenditures and reserves for the previous year.

The board eventually moved on to the remainder of its agenda. Benoit gave his foreman’s report, which resulted in the approval of the purchase of new fuel tanks to replace rusting older ones at the end of their lifespan. The tanks will cost around $24,000 in total, and have a 30-year warranty.

Petraska gave his manager’s report, noting that Ludlow Electric is participating in a voluntary two-month moratorium on disconnections in response to the recent floods. He also told the board that, on Aug. 22, the electric department had a closing conference with the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA), regarding an “accident” which happened on April 21. He told the board that citations would be mailed to the electric department.

In discussing business for their next agenda, Brandt suggested to the board that they discuss pay raises for Ludlow Electric employees. “We did our raises last December, assuming that the town was doing 5%,” Brandt said. “However, the town has done 10%, so I’d like to bring that up next meeting and vote on [increasing our pay raises to 10%].” Brandt noted that, while that still will not see Ludlow Electric employees being paid similarly to their counterparts at GMP, it would make the pay competitive with other small utilities.

The Ludlow Electric Light Department Board of Commissioners meets on the fourth Thursday of every month, at 4:30 p.m. Currently, the board is in talks to move the meetings to the Ludlow Town Hall.

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