On Tuesday, July 28, Knoxville’s City Councilmembers will take the first steps in either forwarding or stalling the ACT on KUB amendment to the City Charter to bring more Accountability, Cost-Savings, and Transparency to the city’s utility provider, KUB. In order for Knoxvillians to have the opportunity to vote on the proposed amendment in the November election, Councilmembers must approve the amendment both on July 28 and on August 11. Here’s why the City Charter amendment is necessary, and how you can urge your Councilmembers to take action today.Guest Blog | July 27, 2020
This blog post was written by Brady Watson, former Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
In 1938, Knoxville’s citizens voted on an amendment to the Knoxville City Charter to form a public utility in order to bring affordable power to their community. As a result of the passage of that City Charter amendment, Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) was created and began providing electricity and water service to residents in 1939, gas service in 1945, and wastewater service in 1987.
While much has changed in our world since that vote 82 years ago, the original intention to bring affordable power to the community has not. Unfortunately, KUB, the publicly-owned utility created all those years ago, has continued to raise their fees so that Knoxvillians today pay up to $85 every month in fixed fees, regardless of how much electric, water, wastewater, or gas service they actually use.
If you’re wondering whether this is just the norm for utility providers of similar size, know that it’s not. KUB has among the highest fixed fees of similarly-sized municipal electricity providers in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) service territory. Given that KUB’s Board has unanimously approved every proposed mandatory fee increase—with little to no public input—in at least the past decade, there’s not much reason to believe that this trend will stop.
One reason the public has too often been left out of KUB’s decision-making process is that over eighty years ago the City Charter allowed that KUB Board of Commissioners were allowed to serve excessively long 7-year terms (and up to 14-years if serving two terms), hindering accountability to the people KUB serves.
That’s why a grassroots coalition launched the ‘ACT On KUB’ campaign to call for Accountability, Cost-savings, and Transparency from our public utility provider. ACT on KUB is not a campaign led by SACE alone. In fact, SACE is just one of several Knoxville-based nonprofit organizations, Knoxville City Councilmembers, and candidates to support an amendment to the City Charter that would hold KUB accountable for providing Knoxville with more equitable and affordable services.
SACE is proud to be part of a coalition of organizations behind ACT on KUB—including the One Knox Legacy Coalition, Appalachian Voices, Community Voices’ Affordable Utilities Council, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), the Tennessee chapter of American Promise, Harvey Broome Group of Sierra Club, Underground Collective, and the Battlefield Farms. In addition, the coalition is endorsed by City Councilmembers Seema Singh and Amelia Parker, Representative for U.S. House, District 13, Gloria Johnson, Candidate for TN State House District 15, Matthew Park, and Candidate for U.S. House Tennessee District 2, Renee Hoyos.
Here’s what the endorsers of ACT on KUB have to say about why they support the proposed charter amendment:
“We join SACE and the other community advocates to appeal to KUB for more accountability, transparency, and lower costs. As KUB and our elected officials move on these reforms, all of our communities in Knoxville may be in a better position to thrive.”
— Reverend Calvin Taylor Skinner, Co-founder, Convener, One Knox Legacy Coalition
“The people of Knoxville deserve more control over the resources we depend on, especially the resources we already own. ACT on KUB will build a foundation for more equity, justice and self-determination over our publicly-owned energy in Knoxville.”
— Bri Knisley, Tennessee Field Coordinator, Appalachian Voices
“KUB is a public entity. If the voters pass the amendment, it will be beneficial to KUB as well as its customers. With the added transparency we can know that KUB is working with us for equity in cost savings, reliable service for all customers, and are partners in sustainability.”
— Seema Singh, Knoxville City Councilmember
“We are glad to partner with SACE and others to bring more layers of protection and energy equity to our most vulnerable residents in this precarious economy. Our efforts now are to ask the people at large whether these changes make sense to them. So we ask City Council to make that possible with their vote to put these proposals on the ballot this November.”
— Stefan White, Chair of Community Voices’ Affordable Utilities Council
“Let’s put this on the ballot for November so we can all raise our voices in a conversation about how to improve accountability, cost-savings and transparency in our relations with our utility.”
— Kent Minault, Political Chair, Sierra Club – Harvey Broome Group
“We want to put the public back in KUB’s role as a trusted public utility. We are asking the Knoxville City Council to allow the citizens of Knoxville to vote in November on a targeted set of simple, common-sense reforms to the Knoxville City Charter that assures our city-owned utility operates in a manner that keeps KUB’s leadership in close contact with the people they are empowered to serve.”
— Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
“The existing language in the Charter does not provide for effective oversight and public accountability for a public utility. It does not provide for proper community representation either, which is a terrible omission.”
— Chet Hunt, Chairman, and Founder, Tennessee American Promise
“Accountability, lowering-costs, and transparency should be the backbone of any public utility. I’m proud to support the ACT on KUB campaign as they strive for all three.”
— Renee Hoyos, Candidate for U.S. House Tennessee District 2
“Low-income ratepayers and communities deserve affordable energy and a public utility responsive to their needs. This proposed amendment would offer much-needed reforms to make KUB leadership more reflective of its customer base and give KUB ratepayers more control and transparency over their energy bills.”
— Erica Davis, President of the Board, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment (SOCM)
“In this time of unparalleled disparity and hardship, it is critical that KUB, a public entity, be accountable to the public. I support the charter amendment to bring KUB’s board and business practices in line with other publicly accountable organizations.”
— Matthew Park, Candidate for TN State House, District 15
“It is our responsibility to look after all of God’s creation, including the earth and those among us who are struggling. The ACT on KUB charter amendment will allow for both as we work to get more public participation to address earth care issues and fees that impact our most vulnerable community members.”
— Chris Battle, Lead Pastor and Farm Operator, Underground Collective/Battlefield Farms
“The proposed ACT on KUB charter amendment to bring more accountability, cost-savings and transparency to KUB is a positive step to make our public utility more responsive to community members it was created to serve.”
— Gloria Johnson, Representative for U.S. House, District 13
“I support SACE’s common-sense proposal to make the KUB board more diverse and responsive to public needs.”
— Marshall Stair, Knoxville City Councilmember (2011-2019) and Candidate for Knoxville City Mayor (2019)
ACT on KUB Needs Your Support Now
In response to the ACT on KUB proposed amendment, KUB and Mayor Kincannon have offered some voluntary commitments to address issues identified by the City Charter amendment. The Mayor’s commitments are welcome, but since her resolution is only an Executive Action and not a lasting City Charter amendment, there is no guarantee her commitments would be continued after she is no longer in office. There is no obligation for future mayors to honor the deal arranged between Mayor Kincannon and KUB.
There needs to be more enduring mechanisms for ensuring accountability for KUB customers. The commitments made by the Mayor and KUB should not be mutually exclusive from other actions taken by Council and Knoxville voters to further provide accountability, cost-savings, and transparency.
City Councilmembers and Mayor Kincannon will be discussing the amendment and the resolution at their meeting on July 28. Watch it tomorrow at 6 PM on CTVKnox.org. Councilmembers must decide to move forward with the City Charter amendment in order to approve it on August 11. Only in both of those cases will Knoxvillians have the opportunity to vote on the amendment in the November 3rd election.
Now’s the time to add your voice in support of the ACT on KUB campaign. Its success will only be fueled by Knoxvillians, like you, who want a say in ensuring more Accountability, Cost-Savings, and Transparency from KUB. Knoxville’s public utility needs to count the public in, not out, when it comes to fair fees, board representation, and energy equity.
If you, too, are ready to bring these simple reforms to KUB, now is the time to contact City Councilmembers to encourage them to approve the ACT on KUB amendment so Knoxville-City voters can decide whether or not to approve it this fall.