Friday, May 10, 2013

TOP STORY >> Vote electrifies Sherwood

Leader staff writer

As of 5 p.m. Friday, 736 early votes had been cast in Tuesday’s special election to uphold or repeal an ordinance that renewed Sherwood’s contract with North Little Rock Electric.

Most of the voters went to the polls at the Jack Evans Senior Citizens Center at 2301 Thornhill Drive, said Melinda Allen, director of elections for the Pulaski County Election Commission.

A vote of no — against the ordinance, which was passed in November — means the city council will have to reconsider its decision to allow NLR Electric to continue servicing 7,500 Sherwood residents through 2032. Repealing the ordinance does not mean those customers will be switched to a new provider.

A vote of yes — for the ordinance — will not alter anything. Sherwood residents who have Entergy or First Electric Cooperative will not change providers either way.

Only 10 residents cast ballots at the regional building at 501 W. Markham St. in Little Rock, Allen said.

There is no weekend voting. Early voting will continue from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday at the Little Rock location. Polling places open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday are:

 Kellogg Valley Baptist Church, 9516 Bamboo Lane, for precinct 28;

 Sylvan Hills United Methodist Church, 9921 Hwy. 107, for precinct 31;

 First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge, 14322 Hwy. 107 for precincts 32 and 33;

 Church of the Nazarene, 9860 Brockington Road, for precinct 39;

 Sylvan Hills Community Church, 8019 Hwy. 107, for precinct 40;

 Jack Evans Senior Citizens Center for precinct 41;

 First Baptist Church of Sherwood, 701 Country Club Road, for precinct 42;

 Cornerstone Bible Fellowship Church, 7351 Warden Road, for precinct 43;

 Indianhead Lake Baptist Church, 8601 Indianhead Drive, for precinct 44;

 Harris Elementary School, 4424 N. Hwy. 161, for precinct 48,

 and Sherwood Youth Center, 508 Sherwood Ave., for precinct 49.

NLR Electric hosted a tele-town hall Monday after setting up a website in support of upholding the ordinance. There are unconfirmed reports that the utility’s staff has been driving its trucks around town displaying a banner concerning the election.

Readers have asked The Leader if the provider’s efforts are illegal.

Director Graham Sloan of the Arkansas Ethics Commission said a bill passed on March 11 makes it illegal to use public funds to support or oppose a ballot measure, but neutral content encouraging people to vote in an election is OK.

But, Sloan said, “I don’t think it is (in effect yet).” If he is correct, NLR Electric is not breaking the law.

Previous legislation prohibited the spending of more than $500 in public funds to support or oppose a ballot measure and the expenditure had to be reported within a certain time frame, Sloan said.

Two grassroots organizations — Facts About Customers’ Electric Services (FACES) and Citizens of Sherwood Together (COST) — formed to campaign for and against the ordinance.

COST circulated the petition calling for the election. Its members say they are concerned about the city council’s process in deciding whether NLR Electric, Entergy or First Electric received the contract.

The group supports repealing the ordinance so that negotiations can resume with more public input. It also hopes the city will hire a third-party expert to evaluate all three companies and that the providers will pay the expert’s fees.

A switch to a new provider would save the NLR Electric customers $300 to $400 a year on their bills, spokesman Don Berry has claimed. The higher rates are caused by the utility buying rather than producing the power it distributes, according to COST fliers.

The other organization has said NLR Electric’s kilowatt per hour rate is three cents higher than that of Entergy, but the larger company has nine fees added to their bills. Those make the difference a “nominal” $6 to $8, FACES spokeswoman Beverly Williams has claimed. Her group wants the ordinance to be upheld.

Another point Berry’s group has made is that the $470,000 Sherwood receives annually from the utility is a hidden tax and a kickback that comes from the higher rates NLR Electric customers pay.

FACES has argued that the $470,000 is simply revenue sharing because NLR Electric is municipally owned. While Entergy gives its profits back to stockholders and First Electric returns its profits to its members, NLR Electric transfers its profits to the general funds of the cities it services.

Williams has hosted several public meetings about the issue. Her focus has been that NLR Electric is more reliable than the other utilities and offers better service because a customer can reach a live person after regular business hours at the provider’s main service station on West Maryland Avenue.

According to FACES fliers, Entergy customers experienced three to five times more outages than NLR Electric customers in 2011. The NLR Electric customers are in the dark an average of 33 minutes compared to Entergy’s seven to 19 hours, it states.

First Electric customers were out about three times as often and their average outage was 55 to 99 minutes. Only 2010 figures were available when the flier was published, Williams said.

Also, the spokeswoman claims another provider would have to pass on to new customers a large portion of the $28 million NLR Electric may charge for its infrastructure in Sherwood. Berry’s group says that estimate is not accurate because the city’s current contract with the utility details the process by which the price must be determined.

That process includes using a third-party expert if NLR Electric and Sherwood or another provider can’t agree on a figure, which will be what the utility would have to spend if it were to rebuild the infrastructure at a depreciated rate.

The contract states that the infrastructure sold will be that which exclusively services Sherwood customers and won’t include transmission facilities or substations.

Williams has said part of $8 million of the $28 million would be for a new substation.

The contract states that NLR Electric may need to continue owning some infrastructure in Sherwood because the infrastructure services customers who do not live in the city.

Berry’s group has said all three utilities have reliability rates of 99 percent and Sherwood residents don’t have a representative on the North Little Rock City Council, which sets NLR Electric’s rates.