Broadband is hot topic at OPALCO candidates forum

Lack of transparency.

Not enough community input.

Breach of ethics.

These were the concerns voiced by islanders at Orcas Power and Light Cooperative’s candidates forum on April 9.

Incumbent board member Winnie Adams said it was a “rewarding discussion that dug deep into the complexities of the co-op.”

The 2015 board election has four candidates for two open positions in District 2: Adams, incumbent Chris Thomerson and Randy Cornelius and Ed Sutton. The district includes Orcas, Armitage, Blakely, Obstruction, Big Double, Little Double and Fawn Islands. The board is comprised of seven members.

OPALCO General Manager Foster Hildreth and Thomerson and Cornelius were unable to attend the forum, so Adams and Sutton fielded questions from a small group of citizens. Broadband was the hot topic of conversation – particularly from past and present OPALCO employees.

“I worked for OPALCO for 33 years and I feel deeply connected to it. But I am disappointed with what’s happening,” said Todd Shaner. “I am bewildered that OPALCO has taken this attitude of not sharing. The trust has been broken.”

The co-op initially investigated a county-wide broadband solution in early 2013 but scrapped the idea after insufficient monetary support from members. In February 2015, OPALCO announced it had purchased Rock Island Communications, which merged its staff, infrastructure and operations with OPALCO to deliver broadband services for homes and businesses in San Juan County. Hildreth is president of the for-profit company and Gerry Lawlor is executive vice president. As the parent company, OPALCO is providing funding for the start-up costs and working capital for the new entity. The business plan projects a positive return on the total investment by 2020. For the next two years, $3 per month on co-op members’ bills will go towards costs associated with Rock Island. OPALCO’s total loan investment will be $7.5 million. Adams explained that the negotiations were private at the request of Rock Island founder Mike Greene. For a map of broadband installation, go to http://rockisland.com/home/how/maps/.

“My interpretation of people not stepping forward for broadband was that the scope was too big,” Adams said. “So we went ahead with establishing our own broadband backbone, but then the major Centurylink outage happened and people panicked. At our regular meeting that month we were mobbed with people who wanted broadband. So when the Rock Island opportunity came up, we decided to only do it if it was as a subsidiary.”

OPALCO Lineman Roger Sandwith expressed frustration over lack of communication from management regarding broadband expansion and the Rock Island acquisition.

“When the community asks us questions, we don’t know what to say,” he said. “When we (OPALCO employees) are left alone and our questions aren’t answered, people talk.”

Adams thanked Sandwith for his input and said the linemen crew at OPALCO is what keeps the co-op going. Linemen are responsible for maintaining electrical power, distribution facilities and fiber lines.

David Turnoy asked Adams: “At what point does the board make this kind of decision or decides to ask the co-op members?”

She responded that “we held town meetings about broadband. We begged for feedback and there was very little participation.”

Dennis King asked whether the board considered the Rock Island decision unethical.

“OPALCO bought a market competitor and is subsidizing it with the co-op,” he said. “You say it’s a community co-op but you are driving other local internet service providers out of business.”

Adams said OPALCO’s goal is to provide the community with reliable communications. Sutton said the more he heard about the process, the more confused he became.

“A decision of this magnitude was made without any community input,” Sutton said. “This makes my head explode with questions. If you vote for me, I will be digging deep into this … I want to jump in and answer these questions so people feel satisfied again.”

OPALCO’s recent rate increase was also called into question. This past February, residential members with average energy usage saw their OPALCO bill go up about $10 per month. The rate increase was based primarily on meeting budgeted expenses and covering the cost of  submarine cable replacements over the next 30 years. Warmer temperatures also impacted energy sales last year. A $1.4 million revenue shortfall in 2014 was minimized  by belt-tightening throughout the year. Part of the rate change is equalizing the facilities cost with the usage cost so that part-time residents are paying their fair share of the infrastructure costs. Adams said they estimate that 40 percent of co-op members fall into the part-time category. Because the change essentially increases the basic cost of having electricity, some have expressed that it may be harder for low-income families to pay their bills.

“This is grossly unfair,” said Fred Klein. “I would like to see more creativity from the board.” He suggested taking homeowners peak usage and then pro-rating the facilities charge.

“Maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate how to get these additional funds,” agreed Adams.

For full candidate bios, go to http://www.opalco.com/about/annual-meeting-report/. Co-op members can vote online, by mail or in person at the annual meeting on May 2.