East Lansing’s BWL Rep Resigns Over Poverty Issue

Wednesday, September 27, 2017, 7:54 am
Alice Dreger

East Lansing’s designated representative to electric utility-provider Board of Water and Light (BWL) has resigned that position over what he sees as BWL’s failure to adequately care for poor people in its service area.

Bob Nelson tells ELi he has been trying for two years as East Lansing’s representative to get BWL to actively join a state-wide program designed to assist people in poverty, but that the Board won’t budge. Yesterday evening, Nelson finally resigned as East Lansing’s representative. Shortly thereafter, at its regularly scheduled meeting, City Council appointed a new representative, former East Lansing mayor Douglas Jester.

BWL is a public utility wholly-owned by the City of Lansing, and Lansing has not allowed any other municipalities to have voting members on the BWL Board. As a consequence, even though a wide swath of East Lansing gets its power from BWL, East Lansing has only a non-voting representative. The same is true for other municipalities outside of Lansing that are served by BWL. Because BWL is a publicly-owned utility, it is not subject to regulation by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Reached by phone yesterday evening, Nelson explained that Michigan Public Act 95 of 2013 established a low-income energy assistance fund to help people in poverty have access to utilities. According to Nelson, “Most utilities have opted into that program. BWL has not.”

Nelson finds it troubling that BWL has not moved to give into the State fund even while the Board knows it has been able to benefit from the fund. Last year, Nelson told me, the fund paid out about $332,000 for BWL bills to help BWL customers who live in poverty, “even though BWL didn’t contribute one dime.”

Various charitable organizations in our area, like Capital Area Community Services, have been applying to the State fund to work to help BWL customers in need. (Nelson serves as Vice Chair of Capital Area Community Services. He is not paid for that position, nor for his non-voting BWL position.) But this year, he says, the State won’t let BWL get paid through the fund without contributing to it.

According to Nelson, if BWL would opt in, it would cost the average BWL customer about 93 cents per month, and about $1 million a year would then become available to BWL customers in need of financial assistance.

With the State no longer willing to keep supporting BWL customers without BWL participating in the fund by giving in, says Nelson, “this heating season, a lot of poor people will be facing mounting bills. Their electricity may not be shut off until April 15, but a lot will be shut off, and many will be forced to choose between having electricity—and in some cases electric heat—and having food on the table.”

Nelson says he made “a strong pitch to do something about it.” But as a non-voting representative, he couldn’t even make the motion to ask it to be formally considered. At one Finance Committee meeting, he says, one voting member made a motion to opt into the fund, but no voting member of the Board would second the motion, and so the motion died.

“I said that’s it,” he told me last night. “A lot of low-income people have nowhere to go. Their utility bills keep mounting. BWL will not discharge their bills, so they get bad credit ratings, or they get shut-off. There’s just a whole lot of misery that people go through that could be avoided if BWL opted into this fund.”

Until 2015, East Lansing did not even have a non-voting representative to the BWL Board.

An ice storm in December 2013 downed thousands of trees and caused a massive outage in the BWL service area. Two formal commissioned reviews of the outage found that BWL had made the outage worse than it needed to be both through historic and widespread failure to keep trees away from service lines and through failure to bring in outside work crews in a timely fashion.

In reaction to widespread upset following the outage, Lansing voters elected to allow East Lansing and other municipalities in BWL’s service area to have non-voting representatives to the Board. In early 2015, East Lansing’s City Council, led by then-mayor Nathan Triplett, appointed Nelson. Nelson brought extensive experience in the energy industry.

Mayor Mark Meadows told ELi last night that he fully respects what Nelson tried to do and his decision to resign. “He was a great person to have on there,” Meadows said, “and it is too bad he is leaving.”

City Council voted unanimously last night to appoint former mayor Doug Jester to the position. Meadows describes Jester as “a guy who left Council a long time ago but has continued to stay completely involved in the community.”

Jester currently serves on East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority and is a partner in 5 Lakes Energy, a clean energy and sustainability consulting firm. Jester lives in downtown East Lansing.

Said Meadows, Jester “will stand up for poor people, clean energy, the trees, and nature.”

Reached by email last night, Jester said, “My broad focus will be on clean, reliable, affordable electricity. I also have a number of specific ideas I want to explore with BWL to reduce the conflict between power lines and trees.”


UPDATE: After publication, we received the following statement, via Facebook, from David J. Price, Commission Chair of BWL: 

"While I appreciate Mr. Nelson's service on the BWL Commission and his concern for low income customers, I have to disagree with some of his statements and conclusions that customers are at risk.

"BWL does not shutoff electric customers during wintertime. BWL had its own wintertime moratorium on electric shutoffs two years before the state law was passed. This guarantees that our most vulnerable customers are protected from winter shutoffs.

"Instead, BWL provides multi-pronged customer assistance that ensures BWL dollars are contributed only to BWL customers in need. Pennies for Power averages $50,000 in annual payment assistance from money raised by customer contributions and BWL community program contributions. The BWL also has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the City of Lansing in which BWL contributes $200,000 for customer payment assistance. Both Pennies and the MOU are administered by Lansing’s Society of St. Vincent DePaul. In addition, BWL works with several local agencies that provide payment assistance to BWL customers. One such agency provided $127,000 in payment assistance to BWL customers last year. Lastly, the BWL works with its customers year-round to provide flexible payment plans when they fall behind.

"Two-thirds of Michigan’s municipal utilities opt out of the state utility assistance program and do not shutoff electric customers during winter months (November 1 – April 15).

"If the state changes eligibility rules for assistance, the BWL will continue to find ways to assist its customers in need."