Tuesday, August 28, 2012

OPD's Sheep Getting Fleeced

The Overton Power District, which also provides electricity to Mesquite and Bunkerville, has proposed their next rate increase: 4.5 percent.
Last year, OPD quietly popped us for a flat $5 increase on their "base charge." 
So far, the rate of inflation for the United States is tracking at around 2.3 percent for 2012, and was 3 percent in 2011.
But this increase isn't about inflation, or rising costs of energy production.
Once again, it's about mismanagement by elected officials.
The increase is needed because the Overton Power District has basically maxed out its credit cards and is in danger of missing a few payments.
In big business, they call it "debt service," but it amounts to the same thing.  OPD has run up a big debt for various projects, which they paid for by issuing bonds.  Those bonds need to be paid back, with interest.  The district is in danger of reaching the point where they aren't generating enough money to make those payments, which makes the bond holders and the vultures on Wall Street nervous and less likely to participate in future OPD bonds.
The district has also obscenely overpaid for some of the energy they wind up sending to homes and businesses in the Virgin and Moapa valleys, locking in extremely high rates for years to come.
So they've made a litany of mistakes, and once again they expect us, the ratepayers, to bail them out with the easy fix of grabbing the golden goose's throat and squeezing one more time.
As part of an exceptional expose' in Monday's MesquiteCitizen.com, Barbara Ellestad has blown open the fact that the OPD's general manager makes more than $203,985 a year in base salary, a number that grows to $281,459 when benefits and retirement are factored in.
This is an astonishing number for the head of a tiny rural power company that serves less than 14,000 customers. 
Before the torches are lit and the pitchforks are sharpened, keep in mind that the GM has been there for 35 years.  It's a reality of any longtime employee that their salary is going to be well above the norm due to annual increases that seem small at the time, but add up to large numbers over the years. 
However, that doesn't excuse more than three decades of elected board members who rubber-stamped those raises over the years without applying a whit of common sense.  Pile on the fact that the power district is in dire financial condition, which has led the New York rating agencies to downgrade OPD's credit rating to "negative" and crippled OPD's ability to expand or in any way participate in alternative energy projects, it appears the people have not been getting their money's worth from management.  Basically, they've run the train into the ditch, and we're going to be paying the tow bill for at least the next decade.
Sadly, being the sheep that we are, we're just going to quietly take it, just like we did with the water district increases and the long lineup of untenable fees the City of Mesquite has rammed up our behinds.  In more courageous times, we would have been dressing up like Native Americans and tossing barrels of tea into the harbor.  Today, we're just going to shrug our shoulders, mutter "whuddayagunnado," and empty our wallets even further in the ongoing seas of the worst economic conditions in our lifetime.
In other words, we're going to get what we deserve because we won't demand better.  In fact, we care so little that all three of the OPD board members up for re-election in November are running unopposed.  They know that this tiny tempest will quickly blow over and everyone will soon forget about the latest gouge.  We're being good little sheep. 
And like most good little sheep, we're headed to slaughter, at least in financial terms.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Water District Board Members Should Not Be Appointed

The Virgin Valley Water District and the City of Mesquite are both tackling an issue that is long overdue. 
They are working on changing the way the board members are selected.
Currently, the five-member board includes members who are elected by the people of Mesquite, and another who is elected by the people of Bunkerville.  The fourth person is appointed by the Mesquite city government, specifically the mayor.  The fifth person is appointed based on the recommendations of the Bunkerville Town Council.
It's hard to understand how, in a democracy, the water district was established with 40% of its decision-making body being appointed instead of elected.
Finally, discussions have begun to amend the process so that the people of the two communities served by the VVWD will elect all five board members -- three from Mesquite, and two from Bunkerville.
As the old joke intimates, this actually will require an act of Congress...or at least the Nevada State Legislature.  Contrary to popular opinion expressed often on local comment boards, the VVWD is not a part of the Mesquite city government or the Clark County government.  It is a quasi-governmental agency created by an act of the legislature.
In order to change the way the board is elected, the legislature will have to pass a measure in its 2013 session.  If the senators and assemblymen are able to figure out the will of the people, this should be a no-brainer.
It's hard to find an argument for keeping the present arrangement, especially since the City of Mesquite is now headed by a mayor and council members who are not obsessed with power and constantly looking for ways to impose their will because "they know what's best for us."  The council will vote tonight on whether to support the change, and the rumbling so far is that the measure will receive their blessing.
The intent of the Bunkerville Town Advisory Board is a little harder to gauge.  Again, this seems to be an easy adjustment, but the contrarian streak that defines the pioneer spirit of Bunkerville means there is no such thing as a "sure thing."
One of the sticking points is certain to be the fact that Bunkerville only gets two board members, while Mesquite will get three.  Even with the current 3-2 arrangement, this has been an irritant to the good people of Bunkerville for years.
On the 89027 side of the Virgin River, the argument has been pretty simple: Since about 10 times as many water users and VVWD customers are in Mesquite, the 3-2 split seems logical.
On the 89007 side, the argument is that most of the water shares used to create the water district way back when came from Bunkerville.
Hopefully this won't be a deal breaker.  If it is, the easy compromise is to elect the fifth board member "at large," meaning the position will be voted on by both communities.
The important thing is to get the selection process out of the hands of officials who too often have their own agendas, and put it where it belongs -- in the hands of the voters.
Of course, looking at the recent history of the VVWD board, it's no guarantee that the people will pick the best candidates.  We've elected some incompetent and sometimes downright corrupt individuals over the years.  But at least they were our picks, our responsibility, and we continue to pay the price. 
But in a country that at least occasionally pretends to be "of the people, by the people, and for the people," being afforded the right to elect our own representatives on a local water board seems a small thing to ask.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

OPD Meltdown Is Our Fault

In last week's Mesquite Citizen Journal, John Taylor did an extraordinary job of breaking down and explaining why the Overton Power District has now been downgraded by two financial rating agencies, and may have trouble meeting its bond payments in years to come.
Following that tremendous article was a litany of comments from people ready to assign blame.  According to those comments, OPD's collapse can be attributed to: A) The Good Ole Boys   B) The Mormons  C) Mesquite City Hall  D) Susan Holecheck Haters.
You want the truth?
It's your fault.
It's my fault.
It's OUR fault.
Quickie Quiz time: name two people on the last ballot for the OPD board.
Can't do it, can you?
Most people in our area can't, unless they happen to be related to some of the people who got elected (which, when you look at our demographic, is about a half-degree of separation).
At election time, everyone wants to point fingers and call each other names over which cartoon character appears on their pajamas.  We also want to live and die in support or opposition of whoever is to ultimately wind up in the White House.  During municipal elections, fist fights will even occasionally break out over which mayoral or council candidate is best suited to continue the dysfunctional city parade.
The rest of the offices, like Virgin Valley Water District or Overtop Power District boards?  It's like playing phone book Bingo...closing your eyes and running your finger down the page of listings.  Wherever it stops, that's who gets your vote.
We don't pay attention to who's running for those seats because it's just too much work to actually Google somebody other than Kim Kardashian.  As a result, everybody flies under the radar.  The most recognizable name is often the one that gets the vote, even though that name is recognizable only because it's been a part of the same marginally-competent board for years. 
Then you have the reality of politics exposed in the Richard Pryor movie "Brewster's Millions," when Pryor's character asks why any candidate would spend more on a campaign than they would earn in the office, unless they intended to steal it all back once elected. 
Board members at VVWD and OPD get paid peanuts, in some instances less than $5,000 a year.  You're simply not going to recruit the best talent to run anything for that kind of money.  The best we can hope for is to get our money's worth. 
Then you have the issue of proximity.
OPD's headquarters is in Overton -- population 6,924 according to the last census.  Meanwhile, 15,423 of OPD's customers live in Mesquite.  Most of those 15,423 are not going to make the 40-minute trip to Moapa Valley to attend those board meetings, so there is almost no public oversight from rate payers at this end of the jurisdiction. 
Put all of this into one big hatbox and you have an agency that operates autonomously.  No one is paying attention.
Nobody cares until their rates go up (which has happened twice in the last three years, and will certainly go up again in the next two years).  And somehow, even rate increases don't seem to raise the ire of the populace in this part of the country.  There were no protests or public outcry over the last two gouges, and there won't be one for the next.
If the people of Mesquite truly want a better way to go, it can be done.  The City can petition the legislature and attempt to form a new Mesquite Power District.  Only then could we have more of a say over our own electrical destinies, including the possibility of wind and solar power.  As Taylor's report points out, OPD can't and won't pursue those possibilities until 2018 at the earliest, and the truth is they aren't going to do it even then.  The board is content to buy everybody else's surplus power at whatever outrageous rate is offered, then insist "alternative energy is just too expensive."
As the largest of the communities currently served by OPD, we should have our own power district.
But we won't.
It's too much work to petition and press the legislature, pony up the seed money, and create a new entity.
Sadly, that is the crux of our problem as a community and a nation.
We whine and cry about our lousy politicians, but we continue to elect and re-elect them.
We are lazy.  We don't care, we don't take our responsibilities seriously as citizens, and we refuse to do our due diligence as voters and stewards.
And we'll all wind up paying for our sloth in the form of higher and higher and higher bills for water and electric.
It's not the LDS church's fault.  At least members of that religion are stepping up to fill those board spots, and bothering to vote.
It's not the City of Mesquite's fault, since they do not rule, control, or even significantly influence the independent OPD board.
It's not Susan Holecheck's fault, or the fault of her detractors.
It's not even really the fault of the good old boys. 
It's our fault.
And until we get serious about paying attention to these semi-governmental agencies, agencies we actually control in some measure through our votes, incompetence and corruption will continue to be the order of the day in this part of Nevada.