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LL&P issuing bonds, dealing with pandemic

The Lowell Light & Power board of directors had their latest regular meeting on Wednesday, May 13, a virtual meeting held over the Internet. The board discussed topics such as the employee insurance plan, the LL&P budget and issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board originally planned to decide at this meeting whether to provide employee insurance from Priority Health (the current insurer) or Aetna, but they did not have sufficient data yet to make the decision.

“We have not received the Aetna results back yet,” LL&P executive director Steve Donkersloot said during a phone interview on Friday, May 15. “That Aetna plan is supposed to be very comparable in terms of benefit structure, we're just waiting for the cost. If the cost is cheaper than Priority Health, we would obviously move forward with Aetna, otherwise we would just stay status quo. They will respond, I think next week.”

According to a May 12 interoffice memorandum written by Donkersloot, the utility wants to issue $995,000 worth of bonds to help pay for “the numerous, long overdue facility upgrades that need to take place at our energy center. At last month's board meeting, we discussed moving forward with all of these projects, rather than only a handful, in the next fiscal year by issuing bonds.” The public now has 45 days to petition LL&P to make the issuance of bonds subject to a vote of residents.

“Next Monday [May 18], the council will be presented with a resolution, which they would need to pass,” Donkersloot said. “We could still decide not to move forward, even if the council passes the resolution. We haven't gone out for quotes for interest rates. [$995,000] might be far more than we actually need.”

The Lowell Light & Power board approved their budget for the next fiscal year. The LL&P budget is part of the city of Lowell's total budget, which by law must be completed by June 30.

“The budget was adopted as presented and now it will be going to the city council for approval,” Donkersloot said. “Our budget has to be incorporated with the city's budget because LL&P is an enterprise fund of the city. I'll be presenting the budget for informational purposes at their meeting on Monday [May 18]. Ultimately, it will be included in the city's total budget.”

According to a May 12 memorandum by Donkersloot, he took a “conservative approach” because of the pandemic.

“I told the board during the meeting that nobody has a crystal ball,” Donkersloot said. “We don't know if this is going to get rapidly better, if it will be a slow crawl forward to an eventual return or if this is going to nosedive even further. How can you predict what June 2021 is going to look like? That is 13 months from now. So it was challenging, but we were financially conservative. We didn't want to be overly aggressive or optimistic.”

Many LL&P employees are able to perform their tasks from home, including having telephone calls from customers routed to their home lines. Those who have to go out into the world to do their jobs have been broken into two groups in order to curtail the possibility of knocking out the whole staff at once. If LL&P line crews are ever unavailable, Lowellians have to wait who-knows-how-long for a Consumers Energy crew to show up instead.

“We have now returned; all of our staff is now back to working 40 hour weeks,” Donkersloot said. “We still have a Team A and a Team B for our linemen. If one group came down with the virus, we don't want the other group interacting with them. We're still following CDC guidelines for social distancing [so] our office doors remain closed. Ultimately, Lowell Light & Power, as a department of the city, will follow the city's lead in regards to whenever they decide to open city hall to the public. So it's kind of a waiting game, and something that [Lowell city manager] Mike Burns and the city council will decide.”

The LL&P board's next regular meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, June 17. It will be held virtually instead of in person. Visit www.lowell-light.org for login details.

“Our number one goal is to provide safe, reliable, affordable electric service,” Donkersloot said. “We want to work with everybody as much as possible. If there is a hardship, a health concern, a financial concern, call our customer service team and they will work with people for payment plans, extension, waiving late fees, making sure they don't get disconnected. Since April, there have been two disconnects, but only for a handful of hours, everybody was back up before 5 pm.”

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