Editorial: BWL reconsidered

By City Pulse Staff

Independent panel needed on response and future

People of Lansing and other communities served by the Board of Water and Light deserve vastly better service than they received in the aftermath of the December ice storm. They should demand an outside investigation of the utility´s wretched performance and its mandate to provide reliable service to the community.

Its lack of a communication plan for emergencies is shocking. That alone is the reason to call into question the competency of the leadership of BWL.

The utility´s failure to handle power outages raises fundamental questions about the competence and viability of Lansing´s city-owned utility.

Does it have the technical and management expertise to respond to a crisis?

Its actions this week and last suggest it doesn´t.

Is there a commitment to customer service for a commodity as vital as electricity?

Certainly for those without power for more than a week and unable to get answers to the most basic questions, the answer is no.

Are BWL rates — comparatively lower than those from investor-owned utilities — sufficient to ensure reliable service? And should the city consider the recommendations of its Financial Health Team and sell BWL, raising much needed capital and perhaps ensuring a more reliable power provider?

These, and other questions, must be addressed.

While the city and BWL will no doubt engage in a serious post-storm review, the rate-paying public needs a more objective analysis of what went wrong, why and whether the structure of a city-owned utility is still viable.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett, facing hostile constituents on Saturday, supported a comprehensive review of BWL´s handling of the power outages. What else could they do?

Yet we also saw Lansing´s mayor — and BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark — defensive and combative with those frustrated residents. In most cas es,

Bernero uses his personality to his advantage, cutting to the chase to get the job done. This time, it was childish. You’d be hard-pressed to find a time in Bernero’s eight years in office when he´s been more unpopular.

To truly address the issues, Lansing must empower an independent panel of experts, elected officials and residents to look hard at BWL´s culture, structure and finances. And it needs to do this free from union pressure, political posturing and a sentimental attachment to the city’s utility. Should Lansing even be in the utility business? It´s unusual; most cities aren´t. Consult with Consumers Energy customers and ask yourself: What am I really getting that they aren’t?

As declining revenues force governments to trim staff and services, is providing electric service an appropriate mission for a city like Lansing? Might it not be better for the city to focus on core services like public safety and education, especially when there are workable alternatives to operations like BWL. A commission should address this question. Lansing cannot afford a utility that doesn´t support its 21st-century ambitions. BWL´s performance tarnishes a hard-won image of progress and possibility. Not a fatal flaw at this point. But the stakes are high and competition is fierce for development. A world-class city needs a world-class utility.

These are the big questions, secondary right now to the rocky restoration of power to local neighborhoods. One of the questions a commission must tackle is the state of the utility´s emergency planning. A week ago, City Pulse requested a copy of BWL’s emergency plan. Surprisingly, during Saturday’s press conference, Lark seemed befuddled by questions about the utility´s emergency plan. He didn´t seem to know whether there was one. After several others pressured, BWL posted it online Tuesday.

And then there is customer service.

Comparing BWL’s restoration efforts with that of Consumers Energy’s is difficult and perhaps unfair. But we do know that Consumers professionally handled its communications with customers in marked contrast to BWL. Consumers alerted customers days before the power went out that a severe storm was coming. BWL didn’t. Consumers’ first update on outage numbers — tentative as they were — were comprehensive. BWL´s first contact with the public was a mere four sentences. For at least a week, some BWL customers couldn´t even tell whether the utility knew if they were out of power. At times it seemed that BWL only learned of power outages when it heard from irate customers. How can that be?

Lark declared last week that he’d heard customers “loud and clear” about the need for better communication and that BWL would bump that up to a higher priority. Of course, that needs to be done — but it needed to be done well before this storm. This is not about hindsight being 20/20; this is about making clear a major managerial failure to invest in new technology sooner rather than later. We’re proud of Lark and his board for embracing natural gas at BWL´s new plant in REO Town. We’re deeply disappointed in them for not doing the same with communications in the era of the Internet and social media.

A fundamental question for BWL is its disbursement of crews and its agreements for emergency help from other utilities and contractors. Consumers worked with tree-trimming companies as well as other power companies to coordinate its recovery efforts. Large, damaging storms require a massive and costly response. Did BWL do enough quickly enough? We need to know.%u2028 Finally, there is the issue of oversight.

BWL serves customers outside of Lansing, communities with no meaningful representation in the governance of the utility. Perhaps this worked at one time, but with angry constituents without power for days on end, communities tied to BWL should have a voice.

The December ice storm and BWL’s response represent a pivotal moment for the utility and customers. Clearly, BWL could have done better and should have. But there are larger issues, structural issues that need immediate attention. It is why we need a commission.