Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TOP STORY >> Sherwood, NLR to work together

Leader staff writer

North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith says the creation of a North Little Rock electric commission with Sherwood representation on it could be several years away.

“We’re certainly looking into the possibility,” he noted. But the utility will be busy for the next three years negotiating contracts to purchase power.

There are several different types of commissions, Smith said. They include those that only make decisions about employees and those that run day-to-day operations in addition to making recommendations about rates.

“We’re looking into some kind of hybrid type,” the mayor said.

Sherwood residents by more than a 2-1 margin voted on May 14 to uphold an ordinance that renewed the city’s contract with the NLR Electric Department through 2035.

Smith said, “We were pleased that Sherwood residents thought we had done a good job over the last 50, 60 years. There really is a kinship between NLR and Sherwood and we really are sister cities.”

The utility services 7,500 customers in Sherwood.

This vote means that those 7,500 will keep NLR Electric as their provider.

Sherwood residents who have Entergy or First Electric Cooperative will not change to NLR Electric because the city’s contracts with those utilities are not up for renewal yet.

The NLR utility spent almost $50,000 on direct mail, advertising and consulting, and the tele-town hall it hosted during the campaign.

Smith approved the expenditure.

He said, “I went to way too many meetings and talked with too many people who didn’t know what the election was about. I think it was money well spent. We certainly didn’t want to lose Sherwood as a customer.”

The opposition, a grassroots group called Citizens of Sherwood Together (COST), received a $100 donation from resident Robert Jackson and $720 worth of advertising from First Ridge Associates to use for the campaign, according to a report the Arkansas Ethics Commission requires be submitted seven days before an election.

Another grassroots group, Facts About Customers’ Electric Services (FACES), supported staying with NLR Electric.

According to its report to the commission, FACES received $2,380 from residents, Sherwood Alderman Charles Harmon, NLR Electric interim general manager Jason Carter and NLR Electric employee Jill Ponder.

Harmon contributed $50. Carter and Ponder donated $200 — $100 each.

Several North Little Rock city council members, like the mayor, voiced support for NLR Electric’s $50,000 expenditure and were pleased with the outcome of the election.

Alderman Debi Ross said, “It’s a win-win situation for both cities.”

She lived in Sherwood several years ago and had NLR Electric as her provider then too.

Ross said, “I know it’s equal service.”

She continued, “(Now) we’ll know how much power to purchase. We could have lost a lot more money if we had over purchased. I’m very comfortable with the $50,000 (NLR Electric) spent on (the election campaign).”

Alderman Steve Baxter said, “I was happy to see the citizens had faith in their city council. It just validates that the people who put them there think they’re doing a good job.”

He added, “I wish we wouldn’t have had to spend any on it. In order to continue our partnership with Sherwood, we had to do that.”

Alderman Beth White didn’t want to comment on the $50,000, but she said, “I think the people of Sherwood expressed what they wanted.”

Alderman Charlie Hight said, “I thought (the vote) was great. I think it confirmed the fact that the Sherwood city council had made the right decision. I think (the $50,000) was needed in order to get the message out to voters that NLR Electric wants their business.”

A new law passed on March 11 makes it illegal to use public funds to support or oppose a ballot measure. The law has not gone into effect yet because it did not have an emergency clause.

Smith said, “We had to communicate with our customers, and the other Sherwood voters, about the value of continuing the relationship between North Little Rock and Sherwood. The cost of this communication was not paid from tax revenues. It was paid from electric department revenues that would be directly affected by the outcome of the election. I understand that the legislature has recently changed...I will certainly direct our city leaders to adhere to these new laws. Nevertheless, I’m glad that we had the opportunity to (in a timely manner)communicate with (voters).”