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Area representatives open to utilities reform

Area representatives open to utilities reform

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State Rep. Fred Brown said he likely will sponsor legislation this winter that would disassemble part of an 11-year-old law that allows cities to keep secret salary and bonus information at municipally-owned power companies.

The issue made its way to public debate earlier this year after Bryan Texas Utilities top management would not hand over detailed budget information to the city's chief administrator -- David Watkins. It took an open records request filed by Watkins, along with the City Council sending BTU a letter demanding the data and then following up with more questions, but Mayor Jason Bienski said they've got it now and "so far, everything looks fine."

The 1999 law was meant to protect city-owned utility companies from having to make public competitive financial information once it opted into deregulating its power; the law and, later, a city ordinance didn't forbid the city manager or council from seeing those facts. BTU, along with the other dozens just like it, never deregulated, though, and experts say it'd be a financial mistake to do so now. Even BTU officials agree.

So Watkins and legislators have been asking why BTU needs to keep its financial data secret since it no longer has to worry about being on a level playing field with private companies.

Interviewed separately, local Republican lawmakers -- Brown of College Station and State Sen. Steve Ogden of Bryan -- said they don't want to intervene and tell a city what it should do, but they are interested in changing the rules that are under their control so the public can see the paper trail.

Ogden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he intends to talk to all parties involved before raising the issue after the Legislature convenes in January; however, he said he tends to side with transparency for the public.

He said he's heard arguments as to why the law should remain but described each as "unconvincing."

"Yes, this is a government entity run by the taxpayers, and if the taxpayers want to know something, we should tell them," Ogden said.

Brown, who was serving his first year in the Legislature when the 1999 law was passed, agrees with Ogden.

"You can go online and see at any time what the chancellor of any Texas university makes, what a college president makes, and both are well paid positions," Brown said. "No one has problem with that, because they know they can access the information. It should be exactly the same way for the guy who runs BTU. No one cares when the person is paid a lot of money and it's deserving -- they're producing a quality service and product."

Neither Ogden nor Brown remembered discussing the part of the bill that gave cities a free pass to keep private the utility information.

"It had to be buried in the bill somewhere," Ogden said.

"I'm not sold on the idea that even that is valid," Ogden said of the unlikely prospect that BTU might deregulate in the future. "There are legitimate times when sunshine impedes the ability to come to a good decision, but more times than not, sunshine is better than the darkness -- at least the bias ought to be on the side of openness."

BTU audit?

BTU is the only city department that doesn't routinely share salary and other money matters with the city manager.

Watkins declined to comment for this story but previously has said he realizes he should have asked for the information several years ago when he was hired and was given vague summaries by BTU. He said he wasn't interested in "pilfering" BTU's budget, which some have said has an unspecified pool of money being saved to one day use on marketing for deregulation.

Instead, Watkins said earlier this summer that his job as chief budget officer meant he needed to examine all parts of the city's revenue streams and expenses to see where redundancies were, especially during tight budget times. He also has asked for an independent audit of BTU.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the data struggle, the topic of Watkins' employment contract landed on the council's executive session agenda, meaning they have been discussing for two months now behind closed doors his responsibilities and a deal he signed when hired that calls for him to be paid a year's salary of $165,000 plus benefits. Neither Bienski nor Watkins will discuss what unfolded when Bienski took a break from meeting in private session with the council to retreat behind closed doors with Watkins.

However, Watkins said through a spokesperson that he was going home to "mull things over."

The issue once again is on the council's agenda Tuesday, along with discussions about BTU and legal issues.

BTU -- which is looking at possibly raising rates between 5 and 20 percent this fall -- may need to have its salary information restructured, Bienski said, adding that the change would bring the electric utility in line with other city departments.

"When times are tough and others aren't receiving that, that's something that needs to be looked at," he said about bonuses and incentives.

It's "very common" in the utility industry to give bonus, incentive or performance-based pay, the mayor said.

"I do think we need to be very competitive in what we pay our city employees," he said. "Whether it's the city manager or finance person or the guy that is fixing the potholes in front of your house or a BTU employee, we need to be competitive with pay."

Brown, who served on the College Station City Council in the mid-'80s to early '90s, said he's against tax dollars going to bonuses, especially when the public doesn't have access to the information.

Bienski said he's received salary surveys from BTU personnel that illustrate what comparative markets make compared with local salaries. He said he didn't think BTU was "grossly over-paying people."

"We don't necessarily need to be the highest, but I don't want to see us at the lowest," he said about the department with the most expensive budget, while also bringing in the most money through ratepayers.

Bienski said he would be in support of having the internal auditor evaluating BTU and plans to bring that up at an upcoming council meeting.

"I'm never going to argue with an auditor," he said.

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