June 26, 2014 10:49:52 AM
David Shelton's 15-year run on the Columbus Light and Water Board of Directors is all but over, but the city utility provider is better off financially now than it was before he began serving.
To him, helping CL&W reach that stability is the most important thing he did during his tenure, which officially ends at the end of this month.
With the recent change in the board's configuration -- the Columbus City Council chose not to re-appoint Shelton for another term, replacing him with 1st Franklin Financial branch manager Micheal Tate -- comes another set of challenges: The loss of revenue from industrial customers including Omnova Solutions and KiOR.
Those industries, among other high-demand customers, used a lot of energy and in turn, paid a lot of money to CL&W. With that revenue no longer there, the board will have to find the balance between generating enough revenue to pay Tennessee Valley Authority for its supply while keeping residential customer rates where they are now, all while generating enough profit to keep in reserve for emergencies.
If the current board maintains a business mentality, Shelton said, it will be able to achieve that balance.
At the beginning of its 2000-01 fiscal year, CL&W had $1,863,000 in cash from electric revenue. At the end of that year, it had $2,570,000. Now it has more than $10 million.
"The biggest challenge (after becoming a board member) was getting money together to do things," Shelton said. "We didn't have any money. We borrowed it all. You can borrow, but you can't borrow yourself out of business. We've tightened our belts, watched what we were doing and ran it like a business. We've had some problems, but you tell me a $60 million company that doesn't have a problem."
One regret Shelton has was that the purchase of sludge disposal land for the city did not materialize. In a controversial 3-2 vote in 2010, CL&W board members agreed to purchase 118 acres of sludge disposal land from local developer Russell Sheffield for $996,000 over another 115-acre property that would have cost half that amount.
The reason stated at the time for purchasing Sheffield's land was that the only clearance it needed before it was ready for use was a permit from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, while the other bid included land where trees needed to be cleared and hydric soil deposits existed, which CL&W General Manager Todd Gale said might indicate wetlands.
The board approved raising the levees at the lagoon where wastewater and iron oxide sludge are stored, giving themselves another 20 years to find a permanent site, but its deal with Sheffield for the land fell through after the contract expired. Questions were raised at the time about Sheffield's connection with board members, including Shelton.
Shelton said his support for the purchase at the time had nothing to do with providing a favor for Sheffield, and the purchase would have been in the best interest of CL&W.
"Since that time, we've spent over $600,000 (to store the sludge where it is now)," Shelton said. "We could have bought the piece of property for $1 million. Ten years from now, it's going to be done the same way. We'll spend $4 million and still not have anything. If we had gotten the piece of property, we could have gotten it approved by (MDEQ)."
Still, Shelton said he believed the overall success of CL&W over the last 15 years was that it was operated like a business by businessmen. He said he applied what he learned in his past experiences as Lowndes County Chancery Clerk, owner of the now defunct Graham Tire Company and his other ventures with importing and exporting to putting CL&W in a better place financially and in a position where it could provide better customer service.
"Columbus Light and Water is in the best shape and the best light and water department in the state of Mississippi, bar nothing," he said. "It's in the best shape environmentally of probably any of them in the state. I would think that's quite an accomplishment, not that I did it all, but I was part of it. We hired the right folks and got the right people. Today, if we had a sewer line bust, we've got the money to hire people to come in and do it."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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