Dissatisfied Pioneer Coop members rally

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Although Pioneer Electric Cooperative serves almost 50,000 customers in four Alabama counties with power, water and propane, a small group of its customers thinks the power provider needs to be more responsive to its membership.

About 120 of Pioneer’s members met Saturday at the Butler County Courthouse Annex to organize a citizen’s action group in response to their dissatisfaction with management of the cooperative.

Pioneer services approximately 13,648 electric customers, 7,600 water customers, 2,000 Internet customers and 25,000 customers through its affiliate, Acme Propane, according to Pioneer officials.

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The group, who is calling itself the Rural Electric Member Action Committee (R.E.M.A.C.) used the meeting Saturday to elect officers and voice their concerns about the coop. Pioneer officials were not invited to the meeting.

Elected to serve by those present were Margaret Pierce, president; Wendell Phelps, vice-president; Nell Shealy, secretary and Francis Adams, treasurer.

What began as a few disgruntled people grew into the group that appeared for the meeting Saturday, and organizers were pleased with the turnout.

&uot;I was elated when I saw the number of people coming in,&uot; Pierce said. &uot;It showed they have the same concerns we had. I was extremely pleased with the number. It really makes me feel better about this, and that it is worthwhile.&uot;

So what exactly is R.E.M.A.C.?

According to Pierce it is an unincorporated nonprofit organization that has five goals:

n Educate and inform all cooperative members as to their rights and duties as a member.

n See that the proper and best people are nominated and elected to the board of trustees each year.

n Inform members of the annual meeting, encourage them to attend and assist other members with transportation if needed.

n Keep watch on how the members’ business is being handled.

n Make sure rates are held in line with other cooperatives.

Pierce said the subject of Pioneer’s operations has long interested her. Her husband, William, took a disability retirement from Pioneer Electric.

Earlier this year when someone brought a petition around protesting the utility’s rates, she found her cause.

&uot;I became interested after a while in the operation of Pioneer Electric because as these rates have gone up, there just doesn’t seem to be a stopping point,&uot; she said. &uot;When people began to rally, this group became necessary to better educate them on the issues.&uot;

Pioneer officials said that both they and the group have common interests, but that it’s important that they are all working toward the same goals, which is quality customer service at the lowest rates possible.

&uot;We understand that a small group of members have organized to learn about their cooperative and Pioneer would like to work in unison with them and we invite them to ask any question they may have,&uot; Pioneer Spokesman Terry Wilhite said.

&uot;However, we hope they are dedicated to promoting facts and not fiction.&uot;

One contention of the group is that they don’t have true representatives of the 13,648 members on the board of trustees. However, Malloy Chandler, Pioneer’s manager, disagrees with that assertion.

He said the trustees are picked from nominating committees in each of the nine districts, and that the committees can have from 10 to 25 members on them. After nominations are made, the membership votes on the trustee at the annual meeting held in July.

That annual meeting is also a source of discontent.

Many believe that Pioneer doesn’t give adequate notice of the time or location. However, Chandler said the time, date and location are published in the cooperatives newsletter, Alabama Living.

Still R.E.M.A.C. wants better notification of the meeting so more members will attend, Wilhite said that is encouraged.

&uot;This group has expressed an interest in attending our annual meeting in July, and we welcome this,&uot; he said.

&uot;For years Pioneer has tried to attract more members to this event.&uot;

Another contention of the group is that Pioneer’s base rate is too high, citing cooperatives similar in size have lower rates. According to Chandler, Pioneer’s base rate currently is $30, and the rate went to that amount in June 2003.

He agrees it is higher than other cooperatives because there are fewer people per mile in Pioneer’s service area than in other cooperatives.

&uot;Our rates are based on the number of meters per mile,&uot; Chandler said. &uot;If we could sell 300 more kilowatt hours per meter or add another meter to each mile, I could lower the rate.&uot;

According to Wilhite, the high base rate is based on several factors.

&uot;Pioneer is one of the smallest coops in Alabama with the greatest distances in service area,&uot; he said.

&uot;We have one of the highest amount of uncollectable accounts in Alabama. We also have the highest amount in operations and maintenance cost due to right-of way clearance.&uot;

Pioneer services customers primarily in Butler, Lowndes, Dallas and Wilcox counties in Alabama.

Wilhite said Pioneer services more than 2,700 miles of power lines in rural areas.

He said the coop also has the lowest growth rate in kilowatt sales of any coop in Alabama.

&uot;If there aren’t enough dollars taken in on kilowatt sales, customers are charged more to keep the system operating,&uot; he said.

Many of those present Saturday voiced their concern about the acquisition of ACME Propane and said it has put the coop deep in debt.

Wilhite said the decision to buy into ACME was member driven.

&uot;Apparently, this group is questioning its ACME propane business, but before offering the service, more than 85 percent of our membership expressed they wanted us to provide propane,&uot; he said.

&uot;Our figures indicate that more than $3 million leaves Alabama going to out-of-state propane providers.

It is our position that those dollars could stay at home to work to benefit our schools, fire departments and community activities.&uot;

Discussion at Saturday’s meeting also centered on Pioneer’s change earlier this year from having customers read their own meters to it being performed by people hired by Pioneer.

Wilhite said this practice is a common practice amongst utilities, and Pioneer decided to enact it for more accurate readings.

He said many members want this service.

&uot;These changes bring us up to par with other utilities such as Alabama Power and other cooperatives,&uot; he said. &uot;We have an aging membership who appreciates not having to get down on their hands and knees to read a meter.&uot;

Finally, Wilhite commented on the reports that Pioneer is operating hunting clubs on cooperative property.

Chandler and Wilhite both said this isn’t the case; the land was purchased for economic development only.

However, hunters do use the land because they had existing rights to do so.

&uot;Pioneer has been a leader in economic development for many years, and Malloy Chandler recognized years ago that all the industrial land available was occupied at that time,&uot; Wilhite said.

&uot;To be able to attract industry, we had to have suitable land available when industry came knocking on our door.

It had to be immediately available, and as a result, we asked our membership what role Pioneer should play in economic development. The response was to play a lead role.&uot;

As for those hunting clubs?

&uot;Pioneer Electric purchased land, and there were existing hunting rights on that land before and after we purchased that land,&uot; Wilhite said. &uot;It is a revenue source for Pioneer.&uot;

Chandler said he is available to discuss the issues of the group one on one with individuals or as a group, and that he welcomes the questions.

Cut for length. For the entire story, see the Nov. 11, 2003 Greenville Advocate