Electricity sparks

November 9, 2011
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Veterans Day is Friday.

Without mentioning that date, Kent County Commissioner Stan Ponstein took a few moments last week to criticize what he sees as a lack of financial support at the county level for veterans. The former Grandville city councilman pointed out that the county’s 2012 operating budget has targeted $262,000 to help local veterans get through some tough times in a tough economy. While Ponstein noted that figure that is up by 55 percent from this year, he said other smaller counties do more for their former servicemen and women.

Ponstein offered Washtenaw County as an example. He said Washtenaw spends nearly $900,000 each year to help its veterans in need and has roughly half the population of Kent. The 2010 census pegged Washtenaw’s population at 345,000, while Kent’s was 602,000.

“The federal government has turned their back on them. State government has done much the same but gave counties the right to offer a millage for veterans,” said Ponstein.

Not too long ago the county was asked to approve a small millage request that would go before voters and, if approved, would dedicate funds to veterans relief. Commissioner Harold Mast was a strong proponent of the millage, which was expected to raise about $100,000. Instead, commissioners decided to allocate another $95,000 to its Veterans Affairs Department, and that move raised the department’s budget to the aforementioned $262,000.

Washtenaw County, however, does have a millage to help fund veterans services. It’s 1/40th of a mill, which translates into $2.50 for every $100,000 in taxable value, and it expects to raise $355,387 in 2012 for spending on vets.

Commissioner Bill Hirsch said veterans make up half of the county’s homeless population.

“I think we could do better. I think we should do better,” he said. “I agree with Commissioner Ponstein. I think in the coming years, we should do better.”

The county has established a subcommittee that looks at possible future millage requests.

An axe to grind

Campbell Grinder, a Spring Lake company that makes high-tech, precision-grinding machinery for a variety of specialized industrial manufacturers, has an axe of its own to grind: It wants a return to a choice of electricity supplier.

Actually, all it wants are lower electricity bills.

Other businesses and school districts across the state also want a return to choice, as a Michigan Senate committee heard last week — but the Michigan Manufacturers Association’s stance is: Let’s wait until the end of 2013.

“The last couple of years, we had runaway electricity costs,” said Mark Butler, one of the owners of Campbell Grinder, a company with 75 employees and annual sales ranging from $20 million to $25 million.

Butler told the Business Journal that Campbell’s rate for its electricity went up 16 percent from 2009 to 2010, and 23 percent from 2010 to 2011.

But Chuck Hadden, president/CEO of the MMA, said his organization was actively involved in the deliberations in the Michigan Legislature when the energy legislation was enacted in 2008, and they don’t want anything changed — yet, anyway.

The 2008 legislation included a 10 percent limit on the amount of electricity on DTE and Consumers Energy lines that was supplied by competing generating companies. Since deregulation of 2000, there had been free choice for all customers of CE and DTE, with no limit or “cap” on the amount from other generating companies.

A panel of King Solomons would be useful in deciding issues like this. On one hand, the government-regulated utilities — DTE and Consumers — have to make a reasonable return on their massive investments in infrastructure and generating plants. On the other hand, open competition is considered the best way to arrive at the fairest price, right?

But the 2008 energy legislation “is a compromise,” Hadden told the Business Journal. “There are things in there that we wanted to have done and that needed to be done, and they have not been completed yet. So I don’t want to mess with the entire package until we get to that point.”

The MMA wanted the Michigan Public Service Commission to phase out the electricity rate structure that for years had businesses paying more than residential customers — in effect, subsidizing residential customers to some extent, or “keeping their rates lower than normal,” as Hadden put it.

“Our agreement was to go to cost of service or de-skewing that process over a five-year period. That five-year period ends in ’13, and we are not completely de-skewed yet.”

In other words, the business customers haven’t yet felt the full benefit of de-skewing.

Hadden said if the law is brought up for amendment now, he is “very fearful (that) something else is going to come unraveled out of the whole thing.”

“Do I think it’s a perfect package? No. But I think it’s something we need to stick with right now and go to the end (of 2013),” he said.

There are three groups now involved in this debate over electricity choice. The group that is OK with the way the law is now is the Michigan Jobs & Energy Coalition, which includes Consumers and DTE plus the MMA, Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Detroit Regional Chamber and the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

An opposition group that has been around for years is the Customer Choice Coalition, made up of businesses, alternative energy suppliers, building managers, schools, churches, etc.

The newest group, which also wants the cap raised to allow more customers to be able to buy electricity from the utilities’ competitors — including out-of-state generation companies — is Energy Choice Now. Formed last year, its executive director is former senator Wayne Kuipers of Holland, and its membership parallels that of the Customer Choice Coalition.

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