You Did It ... Again!

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

Thanks to your efforts last year, and your willingness to step up and speak out again this year, if needed, a contentious legislative battle with large cable companies is moving toward a good outcome for customer-owned electric cooperatives in this year’s General Assembly session. The issue in dispute involves the fees that cable companies pay to attach their lines to cooperative poles, and the ability of cooperatives as customer-owned utilities to recover their costs in allowing such attachments.

In mid-February, as this editorial is being written, a bill that we support is moving through the General Assembly. This bill calls for unresolved disputes between cable companies and electric cooperatives over pole-attachment fees and terms to be decided by the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC).

The SCC, of course, is the state agency that regulates electric utilities, including electric cooperatives, so the SCC already has a long, deep knowledge of utility costs — as well as a mandate to protect the interests of utility ratepayers. Since you’re served by an electric cooperative, you’re both a customer AND an owner of your utility, with a customer-elected board of directors in place to protect your interests. In Virginia, the SCC adds another layer of scrutiny and customer protection to the equation.

And that’s what makes the bill resolving this pole-attachment dispute — which has been a thorny issue that we’ve been fighting on your behalf for well over a year — something that cooperative leaders are able to support. You see, the SCC has the necessary expertise to understand the array of technical details surrounding pole attachments, including their component costs, as well as such critical related issues as ensuring electric service reliability. And    again  — the SCC is there to protect the best interests of electric ratepayers.

Yet as logical as this outcome may seem, the path to reach it has been anything but smooth or uneventful. The considerable lobbying muscle of the big cable companies could only have been countered by a higher power: you and your neighbors. During the 2011 General Assembly session, the co-op chorus of voices was so large, so loud, and so insistent, that the state legislature declined to pass the bill proposed by the big cable companies. This cable bill would have mandated that cooperatives accept reduced, subsidy-level fees when cable companies attach their lines to cooperative poles. These reduced fees would have kept your cooperative from recovering its costs — and effectively would have resulted in you and your neighbors subsidizing these cable companies.

The outcry from cooperative customer-owners over this unfair prospect prompted the state legislature a year ago to refer the issue to the SCC for study. This past fall, the SCC study affirmed what cooperatives had been saying. And that is, that there is no evidence that lower pole-attachment fees would directly result in additional broadband deployment (cable companies argued that they would) AND that any reduction to cooperatives’ pole-attachment fees would likely require an increase in cooperative customers’ electric rates if the cooperatives’ revenue requirements remained the same.

So when pole attachments came up again in the 2012 session, looming large as a backdrop to this whole issue was the grassroots muscle you and other cooperative customer-owners exercised last year. And thus the General Assembly wisely chose through this year’s legislation to designate the SCC as the forum for unresolved disputes over these cable attachments to cooperative poles. 

It’s worth noting that Senator William M. Stanley Jr. of Moneta and Delegate Donald Merricks of Chatham — both of whom count numerous cooperative customer-owners among their constituents — provided strong, principled leadership in advocating on behalf of all cooperative customer-owners. And, of course, the elected board members and staff members from all 13 cooperatives in Virginia also worked hard on your behalf.

But in the end, it was you and your neighbors who were the game-changers. And because of your advocacy last year, and your willingness to step up again this year if and when needed, last year’s unreasonable cable bill turned into this year’s reasonable outcome.

And, as we noted in these pages a year ago, “the turning point came not in the halls of power in Richmond, but in the powerful calls of constituents, from Accomack and Appomattox, Clarke County and Clarksville, Leesburg and Lee County, Wakefield and Winchester, and from countless other cooperative consumers everywhere in between.”



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