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Wednesday, February 19,2014

BWL Watch

County treasurer wonders how much the BWL is worth; review team not impressed with documents released; WLNS hears it over linemen salaries

by Andy Balaskovitz

Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing wonders: What’s the Board of Water and Light worth?

Ever since a Lansing financial review team questioned how much the utility would bring to city coffers, it’s easy for Schertzing’s question to lead to selling the BWL to a private entity.

But that’s not what he’s necessarily suggesting. Indeed, few people in this town have expressed support for selling it to a private entity. But Schertzing says the BWL — like all public infrastructure — should have a value placed on it to make sure it’s the most efficient way for spending public money.

“I think the statements that are out there are just, ‘We’re not going to sell it,’” he said. “Why is that the answer? And how can we know that’s the answer without knowing what the asset might be worth? They’re getting to that conclusion without all of the information. … If you’re saying that only on political and not economical grounds, I don’t think we’re completely representing what might be in best interest of taxpayers, ratepayers of the utility.”

And knowing, he said, will generate a variety of reactions.

The BWL is an asset to Lansing just as the Detroit Institute of Arts is to Detroit, which is grappling with selling some of its collection as part of the city’s bankruptcy, Schertzing said.

“Cities have all sorts of challenges. Budgets are tight for all of us. … I think we can have much richer conversations about which options may or may not exist,” he added.

The arguments against selling it go like this: Rates are lower than commercial utilities, pride in public ownership and doing so would be a one-time cash influx for the city. After Mayor Virg Bernero learned the financial health team, led by former Mayor David Hollister, was considering exploring the idea, he decried the plan. The health team didn’t study it further.

Schertzing believes an appraisal of the BWL is more complicated than the net worth of its assets and liabilities, which was about $600 million a year ago ($1 billion in assets and $400 million in longterm debt).

But he said the discussion should be more than just arguments back and forth at this point. And he doesn’t “necessarily disagree” with some of the arguments against.

“But I don’t know how you have a complete discussion and you truly, openly explore all of the factors unless you really know what something is worth,” he said.

Schertzing pointed out that he’s a BWL customer and a Consumers Energy stockholder. “Our power wasn’t out” during the ice storm.

Document release gets cool reception By 5 p.m. Thursday, BWL officials released several hundreds of pages to the Community Review Panel as part of an external review of the utility’s handling of the ice storm. At first blush, panel Chairman Michael McDaniel thought the response looked “incomplete,” according to the State Journal.

MLive.com reported Friday that the information didn’t come as the team asked for it, which was incrementally rather than all at once. “BWL elected not to do that so it’s making our work more complicated,” review panel spokesman T.J. Bucholz said. “They decided instead to wait until the 5 o’clock deadline and send us the documents en masse.”

The review panel turned over additional copies of the binders to the media as it received them. Both MLive and the LSJ noted that the packet did not contain emails stored by General Manager J. Peter Lark — because he deleted them before the request was made, which he said complies with company practice.

WLNS picks out field crew salaries, hears from viewers WLNS-TV anchor Greg Adaline responded to criticism last week following the station’s story about the document release that mentioned how much some linemen made during the ice storm: some as high as $40,000.

“Many people in the Lansing area have wondered how the utility spent their money during the storm. Worker pay is part of that story. But please understand neither I nor my station made any JUDGEMENT (sic) regarding the pay. We simply reported it,” he said, in part, on the station’s Facebook page.

The pay was the subject of two sentences in an online version of the story referencing daily work hours and the high threshold of what some outside workers made during the outage. Reactions online to the figures ranged from “nobody’s business” to “they deserved it” to “unbelievable.” Others said it was legitimate to know, because it’s public money.

Adeline also said the station meant to simply ask viewers’ thoughts on the figures. He lamented the “name calling and profanity directed at me personally.”

“If our report or question offended you, I hope you can at the very least be respectful in voicing your concerns. As always, thanks for watching.”

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