LINCOLN — The Nebraska Public Power District spent $5,250 this week to fly four top-level employees to a top-flight conference in Arizona.
The Omaha Public Power District spent about $510 to fly two executives to the same Tucson-area conference. The Lincoln Electric System’s travel bill: $280 for one vice president.
Why the difference? NPPD’s executives rode the corporate plane while the others took commercial flights.
The executives attended a two-day electrical utility conference at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, a luxury golf resort and spa in the Sonoran Desert.
Considering that the district raised electrical rates in January and discussed another potential increase at a meeting today in Columbus, NPPD officials should use cheaper travel options, said Matt Butler, an Omaha businessman and state legislative candidate who discovered the trip.
“NPPD ratepayers and voters should be infuriated,” he said Tuesday.
Pat Pope, NPPD’s chief executive officer, announced today that NPPD will not raise electrical rates for 2014 as had been proposed. Cost-cutting measures that included a reduction in 49 staff positions along with strong summer revenues made a rate increase unnecessary, he said.
Mark Becker, NPPD’s spokesman, said the district has long sent representatives to the annual conference to network with other utility leaders and learn the latest industry trends. He disputed the idea that the conference was a junket.
“No NPPD representatives ... played golf or took golf clubs on the trip,” he said.
He also defended the decision to fly privately, saying a time advantage weighed heavily in favor of the district’s plane. The direct flight from Columbus to Tucson took 3½ hours compared with five to seven hours on a commercial flight, Becker said.
In addition, the four NPPD staff members would have spent nearly two hours driving from Columbus to Eppley Airfield in Omaha.
NPPD serves about 600,000 customers with 2,100 employees and has an annual budget in excess of $950 million.
The district’s territory stretches from South Sioux City to Scottsbluff, Becker said. To help meet travel demands of district employees and board members, NPPD has owned an aircraft for more than 40 years.
The district’s current plane is a Beechcraft Super King Air B200 twin turboprop. Earlier this year, Gov. Dave Heineman proposed spending $2.2 million to buy a similar 11-seat Beechcraft from the University of Nebraska Foundation. Lawmakers voted to remove funds for the plane and instead require an independent analysis of the best way to provide air transportation for Heineman and other officials.
The Tucson conference was hosted by RMEL, an electrical energy trade organization with more than 300 corporate members mostly in the western United States. All three of Nebraska’s largest public power districts are members.
The fall conference for executives and management professionals was titled “The Heat Is On: Burning Issues Facing the Electrical Energy Industry.” It featured educational presentations and panel discussions by utility and industry executives over two days. Attendees also can earn continuing education credits at the conference.
NPPD sent John McClure, general counsel and vice president of government relations; Tom Kent, chief operating officer; Ken Curry, vice president of customer services; and Mitt Gilliland, manager of fleet services.
OPPD sent Mo Doghman, vice president of energy delivery and chief compliance officer; and Jon Hansen, vice president of energy production and marketing.
Lincoln Electric sent Dan Pudenz, vice president of energy delivery.
All employees with the three districts spent two nights at the hotel.
The OPPD employees who golfed paid the $150 fees out of their own pockets, said Mike Jones, a spokesman for OPPD. The Lincoln Electric executive did not play in a Sunday golf outing organized by RMEL.
So NPPD paid about $6,200 for travel and lodging, while OPPD paid about $1,310 and Lincoln Electric paid about $680. Broken down per employee, the costs were $1,550 for NPPD; $655 for OPPD and $680 for Lincoln Electric.
Butler, who has questioned Nebraska’s model of public power in the past, said he noticed the NPPD flight to Tucson while checking a smartphone application that tracks individual flight plans.
When NPPD’s board of directors supported a 3.75 percent rate increase that took effect this year, Pope, NPPD’s CEO, said the district cut $15 million in costs from its annual budget. The cuts were achieved by canceling or deferring projects, travel and training that did not jeopardize safety or reliability, Pope said at the time.
NPPD’s board of directors were meeting today in Columbus to discuss budget issues.
The district alerted customers earlier this year another 3.5 percent increase was likely, but system-wide efforts to cut costs reduced the possible increase to 2 percent. Today, Pope said a 2014 rate increase would not be needed.
Strong revenues from peak power demand this summer helped take the rate hike off the table, Pope said.
“The bottom line is we have had a better year than budgeted,” he said.