CHANGES AT LAKELAND ELECTRIC...MAYBE TO STEM A HOT LOCAL ISSUE?
It's an election year in Lakeland, and the usually boring City Commission elections have attracted more than usual attention. The reason is simple: Public dissatisfaction with the city-owned electric utility, whose prices are the highest in Florida except for Key West. Lakeland Electric promises to be a big issue for voters, and that could spell trouble for incumbants and at least one commissioner who plans to seek a legislative seat.
City Manager Doug Thomas finally acknowledged Tuesday that "Our rates are too high and the cost is a burden to our customers.'', as he announced that the resignations of five top supervisors have been requested. Among those are the utility's directors of energy supply and corporate services, the supervisor of one of it's power plants, the supervisor of power production maintainence, and the manager of energy production. The five men have a combined background of 111 years and salary of $486,219.
The changes came one day after the City Commission were informed that LE's third quarter financial numbers were below expectations. The utility has been struggling for several reasons:
--- LE has a contract to sell power to the Florida Municipal Power Association, but under the agreement it cannot pass along increases in natrual gas costs, which cripples the utility to the tune of $8,100,000 so far this year...more than double what it lost at this point in 2004.
--- One of the unit generators at a power plant is being repaired. The cost to buy power until the unit is expected to return to service next month is $4,700,000, and LE customers will eat the $600,000 of power needed to satisy it's obligation to the FMPA contract.
--- Slightly cooler temperatures during the wetter-than-normal June caused customers to use less electricity than normal.
--- And with higher electric bills, people will conserve as much as possible to bring their costs down. Lakeland Electric's current price of $105.85 per kilowatt hour is the highest in it's history.
It's interesting that the city management is doing something about it now, as it has generally left the city owned utility alone for so long. City Commissioner Howard Wiggs recently advocated a mostly independent utility authority step in saying customers had "lost faith in the City Commission" to govern LE...although he disagrees with the notion that they have not done a good job in managing it.
The perception Commissioner Wiggs has is there for a reason.