Co-op franchise hearings continue

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The Socorro City Council held another public hearing about the city's franchise agreement with Socorro Electric Cooperative during the council's regular meeting Nov. 4.

It was the second public hearing so far in a process that may extend through next spring.

Bob Tacker, who owns rental properties in Socorro, was the first to speak during the hearing.

"I'm basically a fan of the co-op," Tacker said. "They're a vital part of the community, and we need them to work — we need them to work well."

Tacker said he's had issues with the co-op lately. He and the co-op were able to work through the issues, he said, "but probably a little harder than we needed to," adding he is probably more persistent than many people. He also said he used to share an office with the person who now serves as chairman of the Public Regulation Commission and was able to call him.

"But not everyone has that opportunity," Tacker said.

Tacker suggested the city appoint an ombudsman to serve as a neutral party to help co-op member/owners work through issues with SEC. He said having a local person for member/owners to approach might make resolving problems easier. He said most issues he's heard about with SEC could be resolved through conversations, but the SEC does not seem to have a forum to do that.

Tacker said the co-op is not just regulated by the PRC, but also federal and state regulations. Wading through all the rules can be time consuming, he said, adding he now had PRC regulations memorized. He said the PRC regulations are poorly written, and there are a lot of areas they don't cover.

Mayor Ravi Bhasker asked Tacker to share his specific complaints about SEC.

Tacker he said a tenant moved into one of his rentals who owed the co-op a lot of money from service at another address where he had lived. He said the co-op transferred the tenant's past due balance to Tacker's business account.

"Which really would have almost taken anybody in the rental business out of business — because any tenant coming through the door is a potential ticking time bomb," Tacker said. "They might owe $200, $2,000, $20,000."

Tacker explained he has no legal right to ask tenants if they owe the co-op nor any way to charge their past due co-op balances back to them. He said it took a few days and several phone calls to get the issue resolved. He said one must read the PRC regulations very carefully, and he thought someone at SEC had interpreted a regulation to mean the co-op could move the tenant's past due balance to the new landlord's account.

"But that was fairly tricky, and not well written," Tacker said of the regulation.

Tacker said for various reasons, people sometimes ask him for help in resolving issues with the SEC.

"No, I've put away my cape and retired," he said. "But I think it's a role that the city could consider."

City Clerk Pat Salome said if the city had an ombudsman position as Tacker suggested, the person could help individuals understand the relationship between the co-op and the PRC. He noted not everything is regulated by the PRC, which predominantly regulates rates utilities charge.

Salome said the public plays a role in adopting the city's franchise ordinance, and offering assistance to people in working out issues with the SEC would be a normal thing for the city to do.

Bhasker said the city's franchise agreements, per state statute, are subject to the public's acceptance; voters can bring a referendum to vote on the franchise in a citywide election if the voters find the agreement unacceptable. He said 2 percent of voters can bring such a referendum, and reminded the council that 112 people voted in the last city election.

"There is a vehicle out there for the public to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, City Council, you're being too buddy-buddy about this franchise' … so we want to get ahead of that," Bhasker said. "We want to make sure the public is satisfied with what the City Council's going to do."

SEC manager Joseph Herrera came to the podium after Tacker. He said the PRC is an advocate to hear the public's complaints, and the SEC board of trustees is also an advocate for consumer/member complaints.

Herrera said Tacker spoke to the board of trustees and staff kept the board informed on the issue. He added PRC regulations can be interpreted many different ways.

"Sometimes you really have to become an attorney to understand their interpretation," Herrera said. "But they are there as an advocate for the consumers throughout the state."

Herrera said Tacker's issue arose in part because the co-op has been working to collect bad debt.

"In the last 18 months, Socorro Electric has written off over $600,000 in uncollectible debt," Herrera said. "And you know what happens when you can't collect — the other members, who pay their bill on time, are the ones that have to support those ones that don't pay their debt."

He said SEC wants to collect on delinquent accounts so it doesn't have to increase rates for all the member/owners. He later said the $600,000 was from 2009-2011.

Councilor Michael Olguin asked about TriState Electric Cooperative. He said at a co-op district meeting, he heard discussion about the co-op waiting to see how TriState changes its rates to determine SEC's rate changes.

Herrera said SEC has to mirror TriState's electric rate design to ensure the different classifications of customers are paying their fair shares.

Bhasker said there are some appeals to TriState's proposed rate increase and asked if the co-op was involved.

"We are interveners in the case," Herrera said.

Bhasker asked Herrera what the kilowatt charges are on a residential member/owner's bill, without the add-ons. Herrera said the add-ons vary month to month.

Herrera said the kilowatt per hour charge varies from user to user. The charge is lower for a customer who uses less power.

"Transparency almost demands to get that information," Bhasker said.

Bhasker asked how SEC ranks among other co-ops in the state, whether it was about in the middle as far as how much customers are paying.

Herrera said some utilities may have a lower kilowatt/hour charge, but other charges may be higher, like the system charge. Some utilities also add charges according to the size of the customer's transformer.

"I can't get a straight answer," Bhasker said. "Everybody's different, you say."

Herrera said all customers differ in their usage.

Bhasker said perhaps he needed to better formulate his question.

Councilor Nick Fleming asked if any customer could get an information sheet explaining kilowatt per hour charges, debt service charges and other charges on their bill.

"Yes," Herrera said. "In fact, we'll sit down with them and walk them through the charges and explain each charge to them — and give them a written handout."

Herrera said SEC also does site visits and performs energy audits, where SEC staff go through the member/owner's home and see how customers can save on electrical consumption and lower their bill.

Councilor Gordon Hicks said his father was the first manager at SEC. He asked how often SEC gives money back to member/owners.

Herrera said this year and last year SEC retired patronage capital for 1978-1983. He said the co-op tries to do it as often as possible, but it depends on the co-op's margins and financial status.