Although the words “transparency” and “infrastructure” were used a lot in the recent mayoral election, there was little discussion of the inadequate electric infrastructure on the southwest side of Columbia. June was thankfully cool. But as the summer heats up, the risk of outages returns. As we have noted before, we have an aging substation serving much of the southwest side and more than one transmission line at risk (lacking needed redundancy) in the summer heat.
Most of us are used to purchasing insurance or taking proactive, protective steps when faced with a significant risk of loss. That is essentially what voters approved in 2015 when voting for bond funds that were to be used to fix our inadequate electric infrastructure in south Columbia. That is what the City Council was doing when it first approved the construction of a new, strategically located, substation and transmission line, and then issued bonds, and approved a related increase in rates. The new substation and connected lines were to have been finished by now.
Unfortunately, in January 2016 the Council chose to “pause” construction with no alternative plan in place. In effect, the City Council canceled our insurance even though we have continued to pay the bills through the increased rates. We also paid approximately $200,000 for studies which confirmed both the substation overloading and the fact that delays are costing us significantly. Yet these studies and their implications were never publicly addressed.
Instead, the Council has added additional load by approving construction of the Westbury subdivision, sidelined our experienced staff on planning issues by referring these to a citizen commission whose members are appointed by the Council, and allowed an exodus of experienced line workers (who work to restore service when outages occur) by not paying competitive salaries. These actions only increase the risk and the need to find solutions.
What the Council does like to talk about is renewable energy. Although renewable energy resources serve an important role in our electric system, they do not eliminate the need for investment in our transmission facilities. Ensuring adequate and reliable electric service presents many complex issues and easy answers are usually wrong. Accurate information and attention to engineering realities are needed if we are to find a way forward.
As we meet the candidates for City Manager, consider the following: Is there a candidate who is willing to challenge the Council when it fails to consider issues that affect our health and welfare? Or when it oversteps the bounds of our Council – Manager form of government? Or when it works to undermine our professional staff? Who is willing to talk openly and honestly to the public about both costs and risks associated with infrastructure needs and failures? Who might move us forward?