LAURINBURG — The Laurinburg City Council will hear public input next month on a possible 7 percent reduction in the city’s electric rates.
Council voted to set the public hearing for 7 p.m. on Nov. 17 after Tuesday’s briefing on a study of city electric rates performed by Progressive Engineering.
Progressive consultant Ed Tucker recommended the 7 percent reduction based on the formerly insolvent state of the city’s electric fund, which operated at a loss of $900,000 in 2014, $1.4 million in 2013, and $700,00 0in 2012. Those losses were compensated by transfer of funds from the city’s water and sewer fund.
Though Duke Energy’s purchase of N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency assets and debt brought a 14 percent decrease in the city’s wholesale cost of acquiring power in August, Tucker did not recommend a commensurate increase due to the imminent need for capital expenditures.
“The town’s done a very good job of maintaining its electric system, but what’s also been done is they’ve utilized all of their inventories: all of the poles and wiring that you would have for emergencies and storms or for normal growth in your system have been largely depleted and need to be replaced,” Tucker said.
“There are some major capital expenditures that are on the horizon for the system.”
Also, if the city experiences a significant increase in demand for power, it may also need $3 million in the coming years to construct a second electric distribution station, Tucker said.
“We’ve got that cost, along with all the other costs that we’re going to need in the very near future and we’re sitting here with zero balance in the electric fund,” said council member J.D. Willis.
“You’re selling power for less than you paid for it, you’ve got a zero balance in your electric fund. The Local Government Commission has written us and told us that we need to address it: we’ve got to do something and do it back then. Therefore, we increased the rates, and even after NCEMPA sold and Duke Energy bought out their portion, all that did was just kind of help just a tad.”
Tucker recommended the reduction as the first phase in an overhaul of the city’s electric rate structure.
“In looking at your rates, you have a very, very complicated rate structure,” he said. “There’s a lot of rates there with not a lot of customers. We would propose to simplify the rate structure, however to do that is going to take some time and a lot of care.”
In other business, city Community Development Director Teddy Warner presented his goals and strategic plan for the next three years.
The plan includes attracting up to 500 jobs and $5 million of investment to the city each year through expanded marketing of the city at trade fairs and with industrial brokers in the region.
“We think these numbers are conservative, when we really apply ourselves here and the talent and skill sets we already have within our city and the community,” Warner said.
“Let’s be honest here folks, we’ll take anything we can get. We definitely are going to focus on industry, but we want jobs.”
Before council retreated into closed session, Willis responded to accusations of conspiracy leveled against city council and Mayor Tommy Parker. Advertisements placed by the campaign of Parker’s challenger, Matthew Block, have accused council of hoarding more than $1 million in electrical fees in order to fund construction of a new city hall. Block said the deal was “hatched behind closed doors and on cellphones.”
Block served as mayor from 2007 to 2011.
“I know for a fact that this council has been above board and has been very transparent in all of the deals and dealings with issues,” Willis said. “On the other hand, I do know for a fact that four or five years ago, the city council and mayor violated the open meetings law, and you didn’t do it one time, you did it several times.”
Willis alluded to city council meetings held in closed session without the presence of a clerk or attorney.
“That is a pure violation of the open meetings law, and that did happen with council and the mayor. It has not happened since I have been on this council board.”
Also on Tuesday, city council:
— Formally accepted ownership of the former Branch’s Car Care lot at the corner of Church and Main streets from the Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation.
— Approved plans for a display of sculptures on that lot, with a total budget of $35,500 for landscaping, sidewalks, and supplies for student artists.
— Approved amendments to the city’s unified development ordinance to formally categorize barber and beauty shops as permitted uses in the downtown business district.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.