EES contemplates costs of 'tree-trimming'; budget is tight

By Julie Fann
star staff

The Elizabethton Electric System Board's need to take a long, hard look at this year's tree-trimming costs has taken on metaphorical meaning. Phil Isaacs, Elizabethton Electric System General Manager, said at Tuesday's monthly meeting that spring tree-trimming is a $500,000 project that cuts severely into the board's Capital Projects fund during an already tight budget year.
   "We're going to have to take a long, hard look at our tree-trimming. We've had several outages recently down in the golf course area due to trees we wouldn't normally trim that caused an outage for four to five hours," Isaacs said.
   Isaacs explained that most power outages result from wind-blown trees and growth that interferes with power lines. He said that, this spring, due to a tremendous growing season, the need for trimming is significant. EES Board Chairman Gary Nave pointed to the board's attempt to please customers as a reason for increased costs. "The cheapest way to trim trees is to cut 'em down and spray the stump. The most expensive way is to carve little hippopotamuses out of them, and we do something in between. It's a half million dollar expense," he said.
   Isaacs said EES often gets into some "unusual" public relations circumstances by trying to always please the customer, and Nave said tree-trimming is the electric system's only real "claim to fame" where the general public is concerned. "The number one picture of the electric system is how you trim a tree. Ninety percent of the time they (customers) go in and turn lights on and the lights work, but they see you when you come out and trim the trees and what's left when you leave," he said.
   Nave said the board may need to make a decision to give trees two year's worth of trimming instead of one year's worth to cut costs. "Those are the kinds of things that we're gonna have to look at so that we have a budget that's realistic," he said.
   Isaacs said EES has had some success with a tree replacement program, but that battles arise over trees that are considered in the public right-of-way. "(Also)'s time-consuming to eliminate the trees, and its getting harder and harder to find a place to dispose of this stuff," he said.
   The largest capital project that EES has on its plate is the current work to relocate power lines on Highway 91 in preparation for the new Northern Connector, an estimated cost of $500,000-$600,000.
   "With a little bit of luck and work with our principal contractor, we've moved three transmission poles as of today, and we have only one more to move. It's looking a lot better," Isaacs said.
On the whole, EES is facing a budget dilemma that includes the closing of the Alcoa plant, resulting in serious loss of revenue, and no new revenue on the horizon. The board discussed a rise in insurance premiums and the need to consider overhauling employee benefits, including workman's compensation.
   Next month, EES will hold a special budget workshop to address these pressing economic conditions just in time for the scheduled monthly meeting to approve the new fiscal budget for 2002-2003. EES also anticipates a report from an outside consultant to arrive within the next two weeks. The report will examine how revenue is distributed by EES compared with other utility companies in the region.
   "I think we're going to have to make some tough decisions next year," said EES board member Richard Sammons.