Columbus Light and Water wants the city’s approval to borrow up to $8.7 million for various major electric and broadband infrastructure projects.
But before Mayor Keith Gaskin is willing to even place the matter on a city council meeting agenda, he said ratepayers need more information on the projects and why they are needed.
By law, CLW needs the city council to approve issuing bonded debt for the utility, though the “revenue bonds” are repaid through customer rates and not tax money. Gaskin said the bonds would not affect the city’s credit rating or borrowing capability.
CLW would repay the bonds through a 1.4-percent increase on electric rates on all customers — residential, commercial and industrial — General Manager Angela Verdell told The Dispatch in an email Friday.
The utility plans to install 26 miles of fiber-optic cable across the city for broadband internet service. lt also plans to purchase/renovate the former Jay Jordan appraisal office building — across Fifth Street North from the old Fred’s Discount Store — and completely renovate its electric warehouse on Waterworks Road to include building a “communication bomb shelter.”
Gaskin said CLW board members had asked for the bond issue to be considered during the council’s Aug. 17 meeting, but the mayor asked for CLW to better inform its customers about the proposal before it was placed on the agenda. CLW leaders agreed to address it in the utility’s monthly newsletter, which was mailed to customers last week.
The four-page newsletter dedicates the third page primarily to the broadband project, mentioning potential partnerships with Columbus Municipal School District and Columbus Housing Authority to build it. CHA plans to allocate $600,000 toward the fiber project, the newsletter reads, in order to provide broadband internet access to its residents. According to its website, CHA maintains 480 housing units.
“Our goal is to create a reliable, affordable and faster internet access network for our community, especially in underserved and low-income households,” Verdell said in the newsletter. “We are upgrading our internal network of fiber-optic cables for internal communications and utilization as well as creating an opportunity for all of our residential and business customers to have high-speed internet access.”
The last two paragraphs of the newsletter provide a brief, nonspecific list of other projects the proposed bond would cover, as well as address the rate increase that would repay the debt.
Gaskin said he appreciates CLW’s efforts in the newsletter, but he still doesn’t believe it provides enough information for ratepayers.
“I’m not trying to second-guess the CLW board and what they’re trying to do,” Gaskin said. “This (newsletter) is not enough information, in my opinion, for the council to be prepared to vote. I will be supportive of bringing this before the council when the citizens are adequately informed about what this is and how it affects their lives.”
Verdell declined to be interviewed in person or by phone for this report, instead requesting the questions via email.
In her emailed responses, she listed expected costs of $8.2 million for bond projects, including $3.6 million each for fiber installation and the electric warehouse renovation, $675,000 to purchase the Jordan building and $400,000 for “outage management.”
CLW used the Jordan building for customer service, to allow for more social distancing, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Verdell’s email said. Employees also use the Jordan parking lot.
Her email also addresses the purpose of the communication bomb shelter.
“The Electrical Warehouse Communication Bomb Shelter will be used to secure all communication hardware, networking systems, SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), camera and computing systems,” she wrote. “In addition, the shelter will protect CLW employees in the event of tornadic weather.”
Verdell said the particulars of the broadband service have “not been finalized” and CLW is working with consultants on coordinating its partnerships with CHA and CMSD. CLW has applied unsuccessfully for federal funds for the fiber project, she added.
Gaskin still wants CLW to be certain COVID relief funds can’t be used to install fiber.
“I want them to make sure they have dotted all their Is and crossed their Ts,” he said.
Vice Mayor Joseph Mickens, who represents Ward 2, remains hesitant to act in a way that raises CLW customer rates without knowing more information.
He told The Dispatch on Saturday he supports holding public hearings on the bond before the council votes.
“I’m not looking to increase bills on anybody right now,” Mickens said. “… Let’s see what the people have to say about it.”
Rusty Greene, who represents Ward 3, echoed both Gaskin’s and Mickens’ concerns. He also isn’t opposed to a public hearing.
“We need all the details to determine if these are necessary projects,” he said.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.