Marfa’s one ballot proposition will decide if city regains control of electric utility negotiations

MARFA — Along with voting to fill three seats on Marfa’s city council, residents will also find one proposition on the city ballot this year that will decide whether Marfa will once again have a say in negotiating rates, operations and services of electric utilities.

The city ballot is not combined like the federal and county ones, so residents of Marfa must head to a separate table in the USO Building to pick up their Marfa ballot.

The proposition reads, “Shall the City of Marfa reinstate its original jurisdiction over the rates, operations and services of electric utilities within the City’s municipal limits, so as to give the citizens of Marfa a greater voice in issues affecting their electric service, and to provide fair, just and reasonable rates and adequate and efficient electricity service within the City?”

This spring, council agreed to hire outside counsel from Lloyd Gosselink Attorneys at Law to get guidance on the upcoming AEP franchise agreement and a possible November ballot measure to take back the city’s rate-making authority. Christopher Brewster, a lawyer at Lloyd Gosselink, presented to council about what the ballot proposition could mean for Marfa.

This week, Brewster said the story begins at an unknown time: some years ago, Marfa, like many other small municipalities, voted to turn over its power to negotiate rates with the local electric utilities.

“Marfa is one of those instances where it happened so long ago – probably back in the 1970s – that no one I’ve spoken to knows for sure. I’ve not seen when it happened or how it happened, but my guess would be a very long time ago.”

Since then, rather than negotiating on their own behalf, the Public Utility Commission in Austin would do it for Marfa, working directly with AEP to settle various issues.

But for the first time, as far as Brewster and his colleagues can tell, a city is trying to wrest that power back into its own hands. And that requires a vote by the people of Marfa, the reason the ballot proposition is up for consideration this election season.

“This would be a new thing in the utility landscape in Texas,” Brewster told council. In fact, Marfa could be a pilot for other areas in Texas who have given up their jurisdiction.  “We have thought in our office that, if it can be proven that it can be done, there may well be interest elsewhere in the state.”

What does the power of negotiation actually mean for a city? It’s the benefit of local control, according to Brewster. “Marfa’s city council will have a greater say over rates and operation of AEP within the city limits of Marfa and that could come into play a number of ways.” Marfa will have a say about AEP’s electric rates from the beginning of negotiations, even though utilities will often appeal decisions to the Public Utility Commission in Austin eventually.

If Marfa residents reject the ballot proposal, things will stay the way they are currently. “Right now, AEP presents its case to all the cities that have retained their jurisdiction, and then also files the case at the PUC for all those areas that have either ceded jurisdiction or are in rural areas where there is no city,” said Brewster. Marfa falls in the latter category, but if the measure passes, it would join the cities who have jurisdiction, meaning AEP would have to state their case to Marfa council first.

“Once all the cities with jurisdiction rule on the case, typically AEP will appeal lthat ruling to the PUC, and the PUC bundles it all together and handles it in one case,” Brewster said.

Another outcome of rejecting the proposal is it would be one fewer item on the city council’s plate to deal with, leaving it all up to the PUC to work on utility prices and negotiations.

But many of the benefits of local control, should Marfa vote to have it, come from the city being able to deal directly with AEP. The city would be able to have more of a say about any potential service quality issues, citizen complaints about electric utility service or rate setting. One example given to council this spring was that utility companies often must trim trees in order to provide service – but oftentimes, citizens aren’t happy with how those trims happen, sometimes taking off more than necessary. Local control would give council more access to negotiating with AEP.

Brewster said ultimately, it is up to the voters to decide what role they, through their city government, are going to play in regulating electric utility service in the city.