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City joins nonprofit to address utility issues

By Grace Lovins

The city of Birmingham has joined the Michigan Municipal Association for Utility Issues (MI-MAUI) to help it address ongoing reliability and rate issues with utility companies DTE and Consumers Energy, with commissioners voting unanimously to approve a year-long membership with the organization for roughly $3,000 at their meeting on Monday, April 3.

In late February, large portions of the metro Detroit area, including Birmingham, were left without power for an extended period of time. Assistant city manager Jana Ecker said that during that time, the city received several calls from frustrated residents about the issues with power, but the city holds no authority over utility companies.

Residents were left with spoiled food, spoiled medication, potential hotel stay costs or possibly nowhere to go with power. City staff and first responders were also charged with extra responsibilities to put out any fires, guide live power lines, and perform health and welfare checks. The city also set up an overnight warming center during the outages which created added city expenses due to the utility companies’ poor reliability.

Ecker explained that the city has different options when it comes to potentially resolving some of these issues: work with the state, other officials, or elected officials to work on managing the utility companies and putting regulations in place and working with the state’s Public Services Commission. The city also can work with other municipalities to address some of the problems.

MI-MAUI’s counsel, Valerie Brader of Rivenoak Law, said the organization allows local governments to group together in order to go before the state’s Public Services Commission, which does its work through “little litigation,” called a rate case where testimony is offered. So far, the nonprofit has advocated for residential users in terms of cost and reliability and lower return on equity because of poor reliability.

One of their recent stances has also focused on advocating for outage credits when streetlights are out, says Brader. Their work has caused Consumers Energy to offer credit to payers for every day the streetlight is out as opposed to their past policy of only allowing payment reduction when the light has been out for a month.

The organization, started in 2018, is made up of about 15 municipalities and deals with both gas and electric utilities. Executive director Rick Bunch said that the organization has steadily intervened in rate cases and other different types of proceedings at the Public Services Commission.

Bunch holds monthly member calls to keep in touch with what issues are emerging in participating municipalities and they provide an annual update at the end of the year. Ecker said she will be serving as the liaison and will come back to the commission in a year with feedback about the group’s work and any intention to renew the yearly membership.

“This is a very good way of getting people involved and excited, and appreciate that when they say, ‘public comment,’ it’s not just ‘Hey, I’m disgusted.’ It’s a formal process which is elevated and you are our voice which we desperately need,” said mayor pro tem Elaine McLain.

The commission voted 7-0 to join MI-MAUI for one-year membership at a $3,133 rate based on the city’s total consumption of electric utilities over one year.


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