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Co-Op Members Head To Polls Saturday For UDWI Election

Members of the Utilities District of Western Indiana Rural Electric Cooperative have the chance Saturday to vote for three board member positions that are up for re-election this year.

Rural electric cooperatives operate differently than other utilities because they’re member-owned. There’s no state oversight like with public utility companies.

Ratepayers elect a board of directors that, among other things, hires and fires the CEO, who leads the organization.

It’s set up as a democracy with annual elections. Each of the directors serves a three year term, but there are no term limits. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association says these elections are what make utility co-ops so effective.

"It’s one member one vote, open for anybody to attend meetings, and very much ... open and transparent to the members," says Martin Lowery, Executive Vice President for member and association relations at the NRECA.

UDWI: Upcoming Election Has Rare Contested Races

Valerie Savage lives about 15 miles west of Bloomington’s city limits in Porter Ridge. It’s the perfect place for her – she’s got room for her horses to graze and her dog can run freely.

This summer will mark 40 years since she moved here; that's 40 years she's gotten her electricity from UDWI.

But Saturday will be the first time that she’s ever voted in a board election.

"My impulse is to, and this is always dangerous, is to vote against the incumbents, because something needs to change," Savage says. "But that’s kind of voting in ignorance so I kind of hate to do that, too."

Savage is upset. Like most people, she’s always opened her electric bill with a bit of dread and thought it was too much. But still, she was surprised to learn she’s been paying more for electricity than anyone else in the state.

"You know that’s the thing out in the country, everybody is somewhat isolated unless it’s family members you see regularly," she says. "I talk to my neighbors but not on a regular basis, and usually it's not about the electric bill. Usually it’s about, 'Sorry my horses got out,' or something like that."

Why Are UDWI's Rates So High?

UDWI is one of 18 electric co-ops that buys its power from Hoosier Energy. But data from an investigation we published last month shows that UDWI customers pay more than members of any of those other co-ops, and their rate of 16.38 cents per kilowatt hour is among the highest in the Midwest.

When asked if members have been complaining about their rates, CEO Brian Sparks says no.

"Not the ones that was coming up and talking to me," Sparks says. "They was just appreciative that their lights was staying on during storms."

As CEO, Sparks handles the day-to-day management of the co-op and makes recommendations to the eight-member board of directors.

"There are some needs we felt we needed to address in terms of the co-op...because we were constantly questioned as to why the power was out so frequently."

One of the major responsibilities of the board is to establish the electric rate the cooperative charges its members. And both Sparks and Board President Jim Weimer say the rates are high because they've improved service for members.

“For several years I would say we have known that we were in the top quartile of the co-ops in the state in terms of our rate," Weimer says. "And there are some needs we felt we needed to address in terms of the co-op, and one of the most pressing ones was reliability because we were constantly questioned as to why the power was out so frequently."

UDWI increased spending on tree clearing and brush removal by 74 percent from 2012 to 2015.The co-op also increased spending on pole tests and meters.

All the co-ops are not-for-profits, so any revenue above the cost of their expenses is supposed to be returned to the members – the ratepayers.

UDWI’s 2015 tax returns show out of $49 million in revenues for the year, it has allocated $5.6 million of excess earning to return to its members.

"I don’t think most people, myself included, had any idea we were talking about that amount of money," says Valerie Savage. "In fact most people probably don’t even or aren’t aware it’s a co-op and they just pay their bills."

NRECA's Martin Lowery says co-ops should be very open with their financial information.

"I would say the definition of openness and transparency includes the financial statements, the minutes of a board meeting, and the opportunity to hold town meetings, the equivalent of town meetings, where any question is a valid question," Lowery says. "There should be absolute clarity in terms of the financials of the organization and the minutes of the board meetings.

Savage has lived here since the 70s and has never received a refund. That’s because the co-op is just now paying out 1959 and 1960.

"I’m 68 almost ... and I’m not going to be alive, and I don't have any heirs," Savage says. "Brian Sparks was like well, their heirs will get it. Well okay, maybe. But 1959, how many of their heirs are even going to be alive or in the area to look at this list of unclaimed money? To me that’s just absurd.”

Election Day: 'Vote For Change'

A billboard along the highway that runs in front of the UDWI office in Bloomfield urges voters to vote for change.

The ballot includes three new names: Todd Carpenter, David Burger and John Royal. They’re challenging incumbents Jim Weimer from District 2, Jack Knust from District 1 and David Stone from District 4.

2015 Group Compilation for Website

Voting takes place at the group’s annual meeting.

The Harrison County REMC, in the southern part of the state, had its meeting this week. There was a band, games and a raffle. And hundreds of people filled the middle school gym to get an update on the REMC and cast their ballots.

“They give away a lot of gifts. I like to attend it every year, see who is going to be on the board and one thing or another," says ratepayer Francis Stage. "I even like when they’re having their bingo down there. That is a lot of fun deals.”

Most cooperative annual meetings look something like this, with prizes and free services like health screenings. And with most of the cooperatives in Indiana you have to attend in order to vote in the annual election.

"They have a free meal if you get there in time, they have a band and they have a health fair and all this stuff," says Savage about the UDWI meeting. "Which quite frankly, that’s all nice if someone wants to drive 50-100 miles, but I would rather stay home and get things done at home and be able to check a vote and turn in my vote."

From Savage's home in Porter Ridge, it's a 50 mile round trip to vote in the board elections.

The UDWI district stretches north of Brazil to Odon at its southernmost point, so some people have to commute even twice as far as Savage.

A handful of the REMCs allow online voting or voting by mail and Savage wonders why UDWI can’t include a ballot once a year with her monthly bill.

"Now to me, that’s not a very member-friendly situation," she says. "The only conclusion I can come to is they don’t really want you to vote. I mean, what are you supposed to think?"

But CEO Brian Sparks says the co-op is operating the way it's supposed to: like a democracy.

"They've got a chance to change it every year," he says.

How To Vote

The UDWI board election is part of the annual meeting, held Saturday, April 8 at the White River Valley Jr./Sr. High School in Switz City. Ballots must be cast in-person.

Doors open at 10:30 a.m. The cooperative is offering free lunch, a health fair and door prizes.

The annual meeting starts at 1:00 p.m.

NOTE: Since publication on Friday morning, Valerie Savage contacted us to say she is in the hospital and will be unable to vote in the UDWI board member election on Saturday. She will recover, but says her current situation underscores her point that voting needs to be easier. 

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