This blog post was written by Brady Watson, former Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
One year ago this month, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), along with coalition partners, launched the ACT on KUB campaign in an effort to bring more accountability, cost-savings, and transparency to the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) via an amendment to the Knoxville City Charter, which governs KUB. The effort was borne out of a series of moves from KUB that may not be in customers’ best interests, including a tripling of fixed fees from $6 in 2010 to $20.50 in 2020, the rushed signing of a 20 year contract with TVA with no meaningful public engagement, and excessive spending on a expensive PR firm, even though KUB is a monopoly with no competition.
Our proposed charter amendment was ultimately rejected by Knoxville City Council, despite the work of Council sponsors Seema Singh and Amelia Parker, but the campaign did generate important thinking and dialogue about how KUB customers could be better served by the publicly-owned utility. This dialogue led Mayor Indya Kincannon to introduce a resolution to City Council in July 2020 which served as an alternative to our proposed charter amendment, and which addressed some–but not all–of our concerns.
The ACT on KUB Campaign, and ultimately the Mayor’s resolution, prompted the KUB Board of Commissioners to vote to formally freeze monthly fixed fees on all KUB services for 5 years, meaning no fee increases from 2021 to 2025. The Board also established that any future increase in fixed fees must first be subject to thorough analysis and a cost of service study before being implemented.
The resolution also stated Mayor Kincannon’s intent to “ensure that mayoral appointees to the KUB Board of Commissioners represent a diverse slate of community members, including appointees who deeply understand the needs and perspectives of lower-income families and who support the City’s sustainability goals.” The Mayor carried out this intent with her first annual KUB Board member appointment following the resolution when she nominated Claudia Caballero, who started her term on the Board In January of this year. By doing so, Mayor Kincannon also lived up to her promise not to reappoint incumbent board members to more than one 7-year term, since the previous commissioner to hold this seat was technically eligible for reappointment.
As a result of the Mayor’s resolution, the KUB Board also established a community advisory panel to serve as an advisory body to KUB and offer a means of communication between the community, and the utility company. SACE Executive Director Dr. Stephen Smith serves on this advisory panel. While the intent of the advisory panel may have been good, it has left much to be desired in practice. Thus far, there has been virtually no opportunity for panel members to actually advise KUB at the five total meetings. Rather, the council has so far essentially been an opportunity for KUB to give presentations about themselves. Panel members have not had the opportunity to help set meeting agendas, and as far as we can tell, the panel has not influenced policy issues. KUB has said panel members will have an opportunity to set the agenda and present on topics at future meetings, starting in August, but that remains to be seen.
In the time since the ACT on KUB efforts with the charter amendment last year, a new coalition has formed to continue the work to bring more accountability, cost-savings, and transparency to KUB. Knoxville Water and Energy for All (KWEA) formed last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in response to concern over utility disconnections for non-payment. SACE has joined KWEA, calling for KUB to end unaffordable bills through implementation of a percentage of income payment plan (PIPP) to help low-income households more easily pay their bills and avoid energy burdens that lead to debt and disconnection of services.
In Knox County, nearly 60,000 people live below the poverty line. A PIPP program would provide a more affordable and equitable rate structure for many of those low-income families.
KWEA will host a summit to launch an affordable utilities campaign and unveil the group’s research findings on Thursday, June 24th starting at 5pm with a press conference at Mt. Zion Baptist Church located at 2714 Brooks Ave, Knoxville, TN 37914. The coalition is asking for attendees who attend to please wear a mask. You can learn more and RSVP here.
SACE will continue to advocate for more accountability, cost-savings, and transparency from KUB, and we will will provide updates here as they develop.