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Wednesday, January 15,2014

BWL Watch

Keeping an eye on Lansing’s publicly owned utility

by City Pulse Staff

Battle Creek line crews ignored

At a Jan. 7 public hearing, Patrick Hanes, BWL manager of electric transmission and distribution, told the BWL Board of Commissioners that the utility attempted to bring in as many line crews as it could to repair widespread outages in the early days of the storm.

“We tried getting more crews. We went around and around getting help,” he told the commission, including from the Upper Peninsula. “We tried everywhere.”

Well, it appears there were several line crews available just 45 minutes away. City Pulse uncovered Midwest Powerline Inc. in Battle Creek, a private contractor specializing in storm-restoration work that apparently wasn’t on the BWL’s radar.

Midwest’s president, Louis Monaweck, who founded the company in 2006, said he was prepared to send 10 to 15 crews — or about 30 to 45 people — to Lansing, but he was never contacted by the BWL.

It’s possible the BWL didn’t know the company was out there, since Midwest never contacted the BWL, either, Monaweck said. “If you haven’t worked for them, if you’re not on their list, they really don’t know you’re out there.”

Hanes could not be reached for comment. He said during the Jan. 7 meeting that the BWL brought in additional crews from municipal power companies throughout the state and four different contractors.

Midwest did help others during last month’s storm. It sent six line crews to help Thumb Electric Cooperative, Monaweck said.

The company has 25 to 30 crews on staff. Since opening, it has assisted in recovery efforts after natural disasters along the East Coast and the Midwest.

Meanwhile, the Lansing State Journal reported over the weekend that, 20 days after the storm hit, General Manager J. Peter Lark still couldn’t say how many line workers are employed by the BWL.

— Andy Balaskovitz

BWL once had mutual aid pacts

Lark has said on multiple occasions since the storm that the BWL did not have mutual-aid agreements when he started the job in July 2007. According to the Michigan Municipal Electric Association, that may have been true when he took office, but the BWL did have prior agreements in which members of the association share resources or employees during emergencies.

Jim Weeks, executive director of the association, said the BWL dropped its membership from the organization in May 1995, which would have canceled any mutual aid agreements in place.

But between at least 1991 and May 1995, BWL had mutual-aid agreements with other utilities. BWL’s membership with the organization dates back to the 1960s.

Of 41 municipal utilities in Michigan today, 30 are members in the organization, Weeks said.

— Andy Balaskovitz

Costs for new initiatives unknown

The BWL unveiled a 10-point action plan last week in response to criticism from the IcePocalypse aftermath. The plan includes promises to hire more tree trimming crews, line workers and dispatchers, and a social media specialist. The plan also included the hiring of a local public relations firm to create a crisis communication plan and “provide additional communications assistance during a crisis.”

Turns out the BWL doesn’t know how many people it will be hiring, how much it will cost, or where it will get the money.

In an email, spokesman Steve Serkaian only said that “the FTE’s and budget impact have not been calculated at this time,” “any cost for these items will be paid for by the BWL budget,” and that no contract has been finalized with the Martin/ Waymire communications firm.

Serkaian did not respond to a question on whether the public relations contract is being awarded without soliciting other proposals, or how much the firm is being paid for work already underway.

Based on the promises made in the press release, the new spending could easily reach $1 million to $2 million per year.

Before the ice storm, the board had said it needs an $18 million rate hike (which has been placed on the back burner for now). The new initiatives would either add to that number, or require cuts elsewhere in the budget.

— Walt Sorg

McDaniel to oversee BWL performance panel

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero announced last week the formation of a committee to investigate the BWL’s crisis preparedness and its response to the outages. It will be headed by retired Brigadier General Michael C.H. McDaniel, who has worked for a number of state and federal agencies, including serving as a homeland security consultant under Gov. Jennifer Granholm. He’s also a professor at Cooley Law School.

Foremost in McDaniel’s mind is examining not only how the BWL reacted to the outages, but taking a look at the contingency protocols in place and if they were followed or ignored.

“The goal is a full, independent, objective evaluation of the efforts of BWL. Not just the response efforts, but looking at what the Board of Light did in terms of preparations and what sorts of plans they had in place,” he said.

McDaniel added that he and his team have worked diligently over the past week to comb through the outpouring of community feedback and applications to be on the commission, saying he tentatively expects to have a list of members by today. While he is looking for equitable representation for customers within BWL’s network, McDaniel is also searching for volunteers with a background in strategic planning as well as crisis communication.

Anyone looking to submit feedback or express interest in aiding in the investigation is asked to email lansingcrt@gmail.com When asked how he will evaluate BWL leadership, including Peter Lark, BWL’s general manager who came under fire for leaving Lansing on vacation during the crisis, McDaniel said he would approach it with military precision.

“No one gets a pass — I see this no differently as being in the military investigating a fellow office. Duty is to the service, not the officer — my duty is to BWL customers.”

— RJ Wolcott

Get heard

As part of its internal review of what happened during the restoration, the BWL is holding three public forums this week to get more information and concerns from customers, including those from service areas outside of Lansing:

• East Lansing/Meridian Township: 6 p.m. today. Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing.

• Delta, Lansing townships:

7 p.m. Thursday. Delta Township Administration Building, 7710 W. Saginaw Highway, Room A, Lansing.

• Lansing: 7 p.m. Friday. REO Town Depot, 1201 S. Washington Ave., Lansing.

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