Power company upgrades to be discussed tonight

Power company upgrades to be discussed tonight

Michele Ellson

Managers of Alameda’s city-owned electric company need to replace the utility’s outmoded technology and figure out how they’ll attract new employees in the face of a shortage of qualified workers, according to a new consultant’s report to be discussed by the City Council and Public Utilities Board tonight.

The report calls Alameda Municipal Power “a very well-run utility” that offers good service to its 34,369 customers, but offers a list of recommendations for improving it that range from better ways to communicate with customers to employee attraction and retention efforts. It also says the city isn’t doing a good enough job providing key services to the utility and that it should take some of those services in-house.

Hometown Connections’ 85-page “Organization Check Up” report also questions the efficacy of the utility’s unique hybrid governance structure, which puts some matters under the purview of the Public Utilities Board and others under the control of the city. It suggests moving full governance of the utility to the public utilities board.

“While the structure appears to work today, it is the opinion of Hometown that this is mainly due to the high quality people serving in both governing bodies, and that the current structure is inefficient due to the misalignment of accountability and split governance roles,” the report’s authors wrote. “However, if changes are made to ensure clear accountability and responsibility, this can be an opportunity to position the utility on a better foundation to meet the numerous challenges that have been identified.”

Alameda Municipal Power earned three- or four-star ratings for nearly all of the dozen categories the consultants rated, though the utility received average, two-star ratings for technology and human resources. And the report identified those two items as major challenges facing most power companies in an age of rapid change.

While the utility has done some strategic planning around technology, it lacks an actual technology plan, the consultants said, and should enhance control systems and replace its metering technology. The report stopped short of calling on the utility to construct a full smart grid system; AMP’s managers have been holding off on such a move in order to gauge the quality and effectiveness of different technologies before making what will be a sizable investment.

It also called on the power company to prioritize efforts to address “workforce challenges” that include a dearth of properly trained workers, salaries that aren’t competitive and a slow hiring process. The report noted that the utility has experienced rapid turnover in its management ranks and in its energy resources planning department, which has caused projects to be postponed. In one instance, it took a year for the city to fill an open position because its human resources staff was stretched too thin to address it sooner, the report said.

The report said the utility, which pays an average of $363,000 a year to the city for human resources support, should take that in-house to speed hiring. And it suggested AMP also take on the task of tree-trimming, something the city’s public works department handles now, in order to reduce outages.

The Public Utilities Board is set to undertake a detailed discussion of the report at 5 p.m. today at the AMP Service Center, 2000 Grand Street. That discussion will be followed by an overview for the City Council at 7:30 p.m. Both meetings are open to the public.

Comments

Submitted by J. Carter on Mon, Sep 17, 2012

So, a city-run utilities company, doing really, really well, having an excellent record of serving Alamedans, is now facing a crisis because of a lack of trained employees? In this age of job scarcity and privatization? You gotta be kiddin' me! And we should let the PUC take over our utilities, because of how well it is doing? THIS HAS TO BE A CON JOB. Sounds like the citizens of Alameda better pay attention and speak up, here, because it sounds like another move by our illustrious City Council to strip us of yet another good thing about living in Alameda.

Submitted by Jon Spangler on Mon, Sep 17, 2012

J. Carter,

Alameda's Public Utilities Board, which is a City of Alameda entity, is NOT the same as the State of California's Public Utilities Commission. No one is recommending that the state PUC do anything at all to run AMP.

Submitted by J. Carter on Mon, Sep 17, 2012

J. Spangler, please re-read the third paragraph of this article:

"Hometown Connections’ 85-page “Organization Check Up” report also questions the efficacy of the utility’s unique hybrid governance structure, which puts some matters under the purview of the Public Utilities Board and others under the control of the city. It suggests moving full governance of the utility to the public utilities board."

Perhaps this is a good idea, taking away any involvement of the City Council... I don't know if that's what this means. And I don't know whether the PUC is trustworthy, either. Naturally, after being part of the effort to stop the Golf Swap, I am just a tad suspicious of the motives of our current officials. I am happy to hear an explanation of just what that might mean. Since the first time I have seen the meeting for TONIGHT was TODAY, I am on high alert. I'm not sure I can make it tonight. I just hope this doesn't turn into another huge fiasco in which Alameda citizens have to drop everything to avoid another railroading of something good for Alameda.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Sep 17, 2012

Hey folks,

Let me drop in with some additional information from the report. Jon is correct that the consultant recommended shifting responsibility from the council to the city's public utilities board. Here are the two paragraphs in the report that speak to the reasoning behind that recommendation:

The AMP Board is comprised of five members, four of which are appointed by the Mayor with the concurrence of the city council, and the fifth being the city manager who serves as an ex officio commissioner. The city council can remove a board member with a simple majority vote and without cause. The city council thus maintains control over the board. While AMP is a department of the City of Alameda and its general manager reports to the city manager, the governance responsibility in the fiscal and operations area (budget, rates, power supply and operations) primarily resides with an independent board. A critical area of responsibility, managing the workforce and the hiring and firing of the general manager, does not reside with the board. Within the current governance practice, the board does not have a formal role in setting the general manager‟s goals or evaluating the general manager‟s performance. Hometown understands that in the past the board was responsible for hiring the general manager and also responsible for setting the general manager‟s goals and conducting his performance evaluation.

As Hometown understands the current form of government, the AMP board approves rate setting, the AMP budget, and all contracts up to 15 years in duration and all operation decisions related to running the electric utility. The AMP general manager serves as the chief executive officer in the areas of rates, budget and managing the operations of the utility. Outside these areas, the city manager serves as the CEO of the organization, responsible for carrying out city council policy through the administration of the various departments and their staff, including human resources and some aspects of information technology. This also means the city manager controls the hiring and firing of the general manager and approves the hiring of any new employee in the electric utility. This structure is very unusual and one that Hometown Connections has not encountered, in that personnel matters are controlled and governed by the city manager and city council while the purse strings and operational accountability (budget, rates and operations) is controlled by a separate and fully independent board. While the structure appears to work today, it is the opinion of Hometown that this is mainly due to the high quality people serving in both governing bodies, and that the current structure is inefficient due to the misalignment of accountability and split governance roles. However, if changes are made to ensure clear accountability and responsibility, this can be an opportunity to position the utility on a better foundation to meet the numerous challenges that have been identified.

As to the workforce issues, the report said that nationally, we're looking at only a quarter of the folks graduating with power engineering degrees that we had in the 80s, while 30 percent of those in the field now will be eligible to retire in five years. For AMP - which has been talking about this issue over the past several months - those eligible-to-retire numbers are more like 43 percent:

http://www.thealamedan.org/news/utilitys-leaders-discuss-budget-and-future

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