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Episode #39: 'Wholesale Power Agency, Small Town Utility, and the Power of Working Together’ with Jody Finklea of FMPA and Jody Young of the City of Bushnell [an Energy Central Power Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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  • Jul 13, 2021 11:30 am GMT
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In the Energy Central Community, July is all about customer care and everything that means and encompasses for the utility industry. In that light, this episode seeks to highlight the unique relationship between a wholesale power agency and its member utilities, the customer experience not through the lens of the end consumer and its utility but the relationship between the power producer and the local utility and how they team up to make magic happen for the ratepayers. On one side of this story is the electric utility department at the City of Bushnell, Florida, a small city in Central Florida with such a small coverage area and a small team that having resources and expertise in different areas can be a challenge. That’s where Florida Municipal Power Agency (FMPA) enters, as a wholesale power agency that is owned by 31 municipal electric utilities across the state, including Bushnell, and empowers its member utilities.

Today, podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester are joined by FMPA’s General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer, Jody Finklea, and Bushnell’s City Manager and Finance Director, Jody Young. They’re here to share how FMPA aided Bushnell to expand the city’s electric customers by a whopping 50%, from 1,100 to nearly 1,800. Increasing the customer base that dramatically allowed the city to then enhance its already reliable power systems and provide affordable power to its customers, generating some critical lessons for customer care across the utility sector.

Prefer to Read vs. Listening? Scroll Down to Read Transcript.

See also an exclusive bonus clip at the bottom of this post only available to members of Energy Central to hear!

Thanks to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

 

Key Links

Jody Finklea’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/jody-lamar-finklea

Jody Young’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/jody-young/about

 

Power of Working Together for Affordable, Reliable Electricity: https://energycentral.com/c/um/power-working-together-affordable-reliable-electricity

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. In the Energy Central community, July is all about customer care and everything that means and encompasses for the utility industry. In that light, we're excited to once again bring to the podcast some leading voices in the power sector, with a compelling story to tell, one that describes the unique relationship between a wholesale power agency and its member utilities. So, we are looking at the customer experience not through the lens of the end-consumer and its utility, but the relationship between the power producer and the local utility. I, for one, never hear these types of stories, so I'm excited to learn the dynamics of this relationship. Hopefully, all our listeners will walk away inspired and with a fresh perspective of the people who make affordable, reliable power possible for its customers.

 

Jason Price: 

I'm your host, Jason Price of West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. I'm joined once again by the podcast producer and Energy Central's community manager, Matt Chester. Matt, our guests today are dialing in from Florida, just like you. How's life treating you in the Sunshine State?

Matt Chester:
Jason, it's certainly heating up, but I'll say there's lots of comfort in knowing we have people like our guests today to keep the grid humming.

Jason Price:
Absolutely. Well, the story we're going to hear today is one that requires perspectives from both sides. So, we're grateful to welcome guests from each of those vantage points to the podcast. On one side, we have the electric utility department at the City of Bushnell, Florida. Bushnell is a small city in Central Florida, with a population of less than 5,000, and the city has nearly 1,800 electric customers. Bushnell is one of Florida's 33 municipal electric utilities, to go along with the state's 17 electric cooperatives. With such a small coverage area, and a small team, having resources and expertise in different areas can be a challenge for a city like Bushnell.

Jason Price:
Enter into the equation the other side, Florida Municipal Power Agency, or FMPA. FMPA is a wholesale power agency that is owned by 31 municipal electric utilities across the state, Bushnell being one of them, and serves as a central hub to empower and assist its member utilities. Driven to ensure the customers across these utilities are afforded with low-cost, reliable, and clean energy, FMPA is a resource to Bushnell and others. Specifically for this story, FMPA aided Bushnell to expand the city's electric customers by a whopping 50%, from 1,100 to nearly 1,800 customers. Increasing the customer base that dramatically allowed the city to then enhance its already reliable power systems and provide affordable power to its customers.

Jason Price:
In light of Customer Care Month at Energy Central, we're eager to dive into how this partnership and collaboration benefited the end-customer. For that, thankfully, we have guests from both Bushnell and FMPA. Before we introduce them, let's give a shout out to the sponsors of this podcast, who made this episode possible. To West Monroe, West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric, gas, and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, and DER and cybersecurity.

Jason Price:
To Esri. Esri, an international supplier of geographic information, GIS software, web GIS, and geo database management applications. To Anterix. Anterix focuses on delivering transformative broadband that enables the modernization of critical infrastructure for the energy, transportation, logistics, and other sectors of our economy. And to ScottMadden. ScottMadden, a management consulting firm serving clients across the energy utility ecosystem. Areas of focus include transmission and distribution, the grid edge, generation, energy markets, rates and regulations, corporate sustainability, and corporate services. The firm helps clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize departments in entire companies, and implement myriad initiatives.

Jason Price:
Now let's introduce our guests, so we can learn more about FMPA and dive into the successful project. First, we have Jody Young, city manager and finance director for the City of Bushnell. Jody, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jody Young:
Thank you, Jason. I'm glad to be here.

Jason Price:
From the FMPA side, we're thrilled to introduce Jody Finklea. Jody is the general counsel and chief legal officer at Florida Municipal Power Agency, where he brings his subject matter expertise on all aspects of municipal electric utility law, which have, no doubt, proven essential over the course of the two decades he's been at FMPA. Jody, happy to have you on the podcast, as well.

Jody Finklea:
Thank you, Jason. Happy to be here.

Jason Price:
So, with two guests and such a rich topic, let's dig in. Jody Young, perhaps I could start with you. Our listeners come from utilities across the country, both large and small, but no doubt, you and your colleagues at the City of Bushnell represent one of the smaller teams and service areas. Paint the picture for us. Tell us about Bushnell, and what are the unique situations and challenges associated with being a small utility?

Jody Young:
Sure. I just wanted to say that the city as a whole is a small city. We have approximately 3,500 residents, but we only have 32 employees. However, we provide all of the same services that a larger city would offer. We have water, sewer, garbage, electric, multiple city parks, streets and right-of-way maintenance, building permitting and inspections, and a variety of other tasks that we handle here at the city. With limited staff, many of us wear a variety of hats, and we all try to work together to provide the best possible service to our residents and our customers.

Jody Young:
From the electric utility standpoint, we only have a department of five. We have four journeymen linemen and one apprentice lineman. For the day-to-day, the electric department handles all electric service orders. They complete locate tickets for location of city utilities through SUNSHINE 811. They read utility meters for both electric and water, and they install basic, new electric service connections, and even some smaller system improvements. Two of our electric linemen also have water distribution licenses and assist the water and sewer department when needed. As you can see, the city's employees actually manage a lot of other responsibilities that aren't just restricted to their own department.

Jason Price:
Share with us your role specifically. Describe for us your day-to-day to help the audience understand, and even appreciate, the people who work at the municipal electric utilities?

Jody Young:
Okay. My role is very diverse. Besides being the city manager, I'm also the finance director. I often assist our deputy finance director with the annual budget, and our external comprehensive annual financial report, which is basically our audit report. I attend meetings with developers regarding potential new economic development projects in the city. I also meet with the city engineers on various city projects. I serve on our city's regular employee pension plan board, as well as various board positions and committees at FMPA. I communicate with my department heads in the city council regularly, so that I'm aware of anything going on within the city. I've often found myself stepping into other roles whenever we have lost a key employee, in order to fill the gap until we hire a replacement for that particular position. As you can probably imagine, my days go pretty fast.

Jason Price:
Indeed, it does. Now, as you listen to that, Jody Finklea, FMPA has a unique business model. Most people don't understand the role of a wholesale power provider. Can you share with us FMPA's mission, and how that helps your members and their customers?

Jody Finklea:
Yeah, Jason. FMPA's role is really to make our member electric utilities successful at home. FMPA provides, and has a primary purpose of providing, low-cost, reliable, and clean energy to our members. We do that because our members have chosen to have municipal electric utilities to improve their community standing, improve their quality of life in their communities. Our success at FMPA in providing support to our members, providing that low-cost, reliable, and clean energy, and all of the other services that FMPA provides, enables our members to be more successful in their communities, improve the quality of life in the community, in their communities, and really serve their end-customers.

Jody Finklea:
For example, at FMPA, over the last year or so, has endeavored into the Florida Municipal Solar Project, 375 megawatts of solar energy in 16 cities. The reason we did that is because we surveyed our customers in those cities. So, from the basis of what the customers themselves wanted, low-cost, clean energy, we were able to put together a project to provide 16 cities with those demographics where they had customers, a significant number of customers who wanted that type of product, with exactly that type of product. That's where FMPA really excels, enabling our members to be successful at home.

Jason Price:
Fantastic. We had your CEO, Jacob Williams, on a previous episode of the podcast, where he explained some of the efforts of FMPA. Can we do a deep dive and talk about, other than being a power provider, what other services does FMPA offer to help its members, and why is that important?

Jody Finklea:
Yeah. As I said, we're here to facilitate our members being successful. We have an array of services that enable our members to do that. I'll list just a few of them. I'm sure, even though it's a long list, I'll probably leave a few out. We do joint purchasing for cities like Bushnell, and other cities who don't have enough economies of scale, don't buy enough pieces of equipment at a time. We combine their needs, and we purchase things jointly for a number of cities at a single time. We try to get them lower prices and better terms on those purchases.
 

Jody Finklea:
We provide operations and reliability support, and distribution operations support for reliability improvements on the distribution grid, sub-station maintenance, and sub-station oversight, a variety of things in that vein. We provide grant writing support, legal support, representing our cities in front of the legislature, in court, before governing bodies, county commissions, on a whole variety of matters, financial assistance. We provide assistance in getting cities comprehensive annual financial report completed, or getting their books audited. We even have a team that can parachute in and assist with a city who is shorthanded on finance staff, and just needs help getting the books taken care of on a monthly or a quarterly basis.

Jody Finklea:
We provide rate support, both retail rates, wholesale power cost adjustment rate, the provision of new rates, the adjustment of rates, and even some rate studies. We provide regulatory compliance support. Not all of our cities are large enough to have the joy of being regulated by NERC for mandatory reliability standards, but for those that do, we provide support in meeting their NERC reliability requirements. We participate in peer reviews. We conduct mock audits. We advocate for them at the NERC and FERC level, when it comes to changes in those standards. We assist with distribution engineering. We have a distribution engineering team at FMPA that assists with distribution engineering needs.

Jody Finklea:
We provide training services to our members, and really an array of IT and cybersecurity services, as well. We have phishing campaigns we run for our members to help their staffs become more alert to the dangers of email phishing. We have cybersecurity assessments, and other cybersecurity and IT services that we provide. We really take the folks at FMPA who have a day job at FMPA, and we leverage them, and we magnify them by us working together with our cities, so that they can provide those same types of services, but they can do it outside of the FMPA buildings, down into, or in the hometowns, of our member cities across the State of Florida, to really have our cities be more successful at home.

Jason Price:
Let's pivot to the topic of customer care. In your daily dealings with customers at Bushnell, what are the typical pain points? How is FMPA assisting in those areas?

Jody Young:
For the most part, I don't think we have a lot of pain points when it comes to customer care. However, the public relations team at FMPA has definitely assisted us in the creation of communications that we want to distribute to our customers. They've also helped us develop some social media articles and information to distribute to customers, articles that we put on our website and social media blasts on our Facebook page. They've really helped us communicate information that needs to be distributed to our customers, and we appreciate their input from the PR team.

Jody Young:
The financial planning team consulted with us on budgeting. They helped us with our rate forecasting and setting. We just wanted to ensure that our rates are reasonable, while still covering our operating and debt costs, and there's a science to that, and some of that analysis goes above what our finance team is capable of here. So, we really appreciated the finance team at FMPA that did a deeper dive into helping us forecast our rates, and where they need to be, and where we need to set them in order to be able to recover costs. We also want to make sure our customers are receiving reliable electricity at a competitive rate.

Jody Young:
Our customer service team is small, but they're very hands-on. We work with our customers individually throughout the pandemic in order to keep their lights on. We also recognize the unique circumstances of job interruption, job loss, which affected our customers' ability to pay their bills in full and on time. We waived penalties and late fees for several months, as well as worked to develop payment plans for our utility customers. I'm proud to say that there were very few, if any, customers that ended up leaving the city with a bad debt. I really, truly believe the personal attention that we provide to our customers, our community was able to navigate the pandemic very well.

Jody Young:
Some of the things that we implemented during the pandemic were recommended to us by FMPA as a way to help us manage the pain points that we might feel with our customers. We definitely want to put them first. Our motto here is committed to the quality of life. That is definitely one thing that we believe in, and we put first and foremost. Our customers and our residents mean everything. Their happiness with the city as a whole, and their satisfaction with us, is most important. We really focus on customer care and the individual attention that we can provide to all of our customers.

Jody Finklea:
Jason, from a customer care perspective, I want to say that I think that this is something that any wholesale power provider can do. Every wholesale power provider's got accounting folks, and legal folks, and engineering folks, lots of engineering folks. These services can be a great complement to the wholesale power you sell. That's a commodity, but the services build relationships, and relationships are something that builds revenue and that provides an opportunity to truly make a difference for customers.

Jason Price:
Absolutely. It's a premium to being a member. In the introduction, I referenced how Bushnell grew its electric customer base by 50%. Now let's talk about the situation that led to this. What was the background there? How long was the process? How'd you make this project a success?

Jody Young:
Oh, boy. This has been a project that was ongoing for at least 10 to 15 years. It was even in the works before I started working here, and I've been here 13 years. We had a 30 year franchise agreement with a neighboring cooperative. That expired in 2012. In that franchise agreement was a clause that provided Bushnell with the option to purchase the territory, and the customers associated with it, that are located in the city limits of Bushnell. Bushnell elected to exercise that option, and we began the process of territorial negotiations with the co-op. Both parties decided that an outside arbitration panel would be the best help in navigating these negotiations, and allow for a fair price to be set for the purchase.

Jody Young:
In 2017, a final arbitration award was issued, and Bushnell decided to move forward with an electric territory purchase in our expansion. The next three years were very stressful, and consisted of a lot of planning. We purchased several new electric vehicles and equipment, several bucket trucks, all kinds of equipment that we needed, that we didn't have, in order to take this project on. We undertook the design, the construction, and the build-out of our own system to integrate with the customers and infrastructure that we acquired from the co-op. We had to acquire over 100 utility easements from the co-op customers in order to serve them with Bushnell electric. That was definitely not an easy feat, and we did that all in-house without the help of an outside agency, or a lawyer, or anybody to help us with that.

Jody Young:
We basically went door-to-door and talked to the customers, and got them to sign utility easement agreements. It was a lot of hours and a lot of time spent trying to acquire those. We issued two separate loan financings. Here again, this is where the help of FMPA came in. We issued, initially, an interim short term bank loan. That just helped us finance our own construction costs that we were going to be absorbing to do the build-out on our side. Then we went ahead and issued a permanent loan that FMPA helped us navigate. That was part of a pooled loan program that FMPA offers to their members. We were grateful that the FMPA executive committee made a major contribution to Bushnell by approving an economic development incentive rate. This actually offered us a discounted rate on power sales generated by the new electric customers acquired during the electric expansion.

Jody Young:
We had to send out new customer letters and applications to the approximately 650 new customers being acquired from the co-op. We also received assistance from FMPA public relations team on this effort. From an administrative standpoint, we had to set up new utility accounts for approximately 200 of those 650 customers, with the rest of the customers already having at least one other city utility at their location. We had to coordinate the execution of the actual cut over, which is basically cutting over all of the new customers that we were receiving from the co-op's electric distribution system, and bringing them onto the Bushnell system. FMPA also assisted us with that coordination through a mutual aid effort, as Bushnell wouldn't have been able to have the manpower to do this in eight days.

Jody Young:
The public power assistance came from as far away as Tallahassee and Fort Pierce, to our neighboring communities of Ocala, Gainesville, Leesburg, Kissimmee, Lakeland, and Mount Dora. We were so grateful for all of the assistance they provided us. We definitely could not have done it without them. It made the whole effort and the whole project just end on a very high note for us. I've often used the word, seamlessly, to describe just how well the actual cut over of the new customers went. It actually did. In those eight days, I think we only had two transformers that didn't cut over. Everything else went seamlessly.

Jason Price:
Thanks. That was a fantastic response. Great to hear that was such a success. Tell us, once FMPA was able to help you nearly double your customer base, what possibilities did that really unlock?

Jody Young:
Okay. Jason, well, from a financial standpoint, acquiring new customers and expanding our customer base really allowed us to offer even more competitive rates than we offered previously. We've realized a greater economy of scale with the additional load that's being generated, which also helped to lower our load factor with FMPA. This helps keep the cost of our purchase power from FMPA down. Being able to utilize the economic development rate that was offered to us from FMPA has also allowed us to pass the cost savings along to not only our newly acquired electric customers, but to all of our prior electric customers, as well.

Jody Young:
We basically lowered our rates, and everybody realized a savings, which I'm really proud of that. Historically, the electrical fund has also helped to offset expenses in our general fund, by way of an inter-fund transfer of several hundred thousand dollars a year. This transfer subsidizes the general fund, and it allows us the ability to not have to pass along a property tax increase on our residents in order to generate enough revenues in our general fund to pay for improvements to our parks and streets. We were also able to complete a significant amount of new street paving projects, as well as continual improvements to our four city parks.

Jody Young:
I foresee the electric fund being able to continue this trend for many years to come. The expansion of our electric system and customer base is just another way that we're accomplishing this goal. So, in reality, our electric fund does a lot more than just fund the electric operating expenses. It's able to offset revenues in the general fund, and it's sustainability in the general fund. It just allows us to ... We haven't had a property tax increase in Bushnell in 15 years. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of this city, that we're continually looking for ways to increase revenues in the general fund, and keep the cost low for our citizens. Bushnell is a very, very rural area. Anything that we can do to keep the cost down for our residents and our customers is something that we're actively pursuing here.

Jason Price:
Let's pull Jody Finklea back into the conversation regarding their perspective, FMPA's role on this customer expansion project. Who were the key players? What services do you offer? What were the outcomes?

Jody Finklea:
Yeah. I think that Jody Young has touched on quite a bit of this, but for a bit of perspective, I actually started working on this project in 2007. Jody referenced the territorial, or the franchise agreements, and so, we actually started meeting with the city manager and the city staff many years ago to evaluate the legal possibilities, and to assist with strategic planning, to see if this project could become a reality. Being a rural city, with a neighboring utility that, in essence, surrounds the city, it's a big challenge to take on a task like this. It requires a lot of forward thinking and a lot of strategic considerations to be made, so that you're playing your chess game three and four moves ahead.

Jody Finklea:
We provided legal support through the project approval process, which included the city council process, and provided some political support, as well. Not political support in the sense of winning campaigns, but political support in the idea of providing reliable, accurate, and lots of good information for the citizens of the City of Bushnell, their customers, and the newer customers that were going to be acquired, if the entire project were completed. The project support, once it was approved, as Jody Young mentioned, was critical from the FMPA executive committee in this economic development rate.

Jody Finklea:
What that really did was it said, "Look, if Bushnell, or any city for that matter, any of our municipal electric utilities, if they provide a big, new load, then that's going to increase overall revenues for the FMPA power supply project. Why don't we share those revenues with that city? Because that city is going to have to invest, as in Bushnell's case, take a long time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of dollars to make that happen. Let's return something on that investment." If Bushnell brings in this big, new load, and it means X numbers of new dollars for FMPA, let's not just pass all the cost savings that those X new dollars bring to FMPA to all the participants, but let's share that directly with the City of Bushnell, so that the City of Bushnell can provide a direct cost savings to its customers. As Jody said, not only to its new customers, but also to its existing customers.

Jody Finklea:
That was an action by FMPA's executive committee that had never been taken before. Again, it can be done by any wholesale utility. When it came to project execution, I couldn't have covered this any better than Jody Young did. Through mutual aid, through project management assistance, through rate assistance for retail rates, and the new-net metering rates, and all that went on with that, through the distribution engineering assistance, there was a hand in the Bushnell project from every aspect of the FMPA staff perspective. I think that, really, the way to say it is the outcome of the Bushnell project was exactly what I mentioned at the outset the mission of FMPA was, which is to make our cities, or to enable our cities, to facilitate our cities being as successful as they can be at home.

Jody Finklea:
In this sense, I really think that FMPA and Bushnell were hand-in-glove in achieving that success. Achieving that success was not acquisition of something. Achieving that success was not a bunch of new poles and wires. Achieving that success was achieving a successful outcome for the customers and the citizens of the City of Bushnell, improving their quality of life, improving their city, and using that municipal electric utility as a way to accomplish that.

Jason Price:
Fantastic. I'm confident our audience will appreciate the lessons learned here. I certainly am walking away with a deep appreciation of the value of the relationship between the wholesale power agency and a municipal utility. Knowing the customers are always being put first is powerful, and it sounds like Bushnell and FMPA really are a dynamic duo in that regard. Jody Finklea and Jody Young, thank you once again for joining us today.

Jody Young:
Thank you, Jason.

Jody Finklea:
Thank you.

Jason Price:
You can always reach Jody Finklea and Jody Young through the Energy Central platform, where they welcome your questions and comments. Once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com, and see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives

Podcast.


About Energy Central Podcasts

As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is always looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community to invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics. Posting about twice per month, we'll seek to connect with professionals in the utility industry who are engaging in creative or innovative work that will be of interest to their colleagues and peers across the Energy Central community. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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Thanks once again to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

 

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