For months, the question has been on the table: Should Culver City take over local electric service from Southern California Edison?
After a contentious four-hour public hearing Monday before the City Council, the question remains unanswered. Council members deadlocked over whether to even consider pursuing a takeover.
The interest was so great that the meeting had to be moved from the City Council chambers to the Veterans Auditorium across the street to accommodate the more than 130 residents who attended.
With Councilman Steve Gourley absent, the council split 2-2 on whether the city should do a detailed feasibility study on providing electric service to residents. The vote effectively shelved the proposal, although the matter could come up for further consideration with support of at least three council members.
Mayor Albert Vera proposed last September that a municipally run utility be explored because it might generate additional cash for the city. On Monday, he and Councilman James Boulgarides voted in favor of a feasibility study, but council members Mike Balkman and Ed Wolkowitz opposed the move. Gourley, who could not be reached for comment, has supported studying the city-utility proposal in the past.
Consultants who prepared a preliminary study on the subject said that although there would be operating losses immediately after the takeover, the financial risks would be minor.
The study, prepared by Sacramento-based consultants R.W. Beck & Associates at a cost of $24,000, concluded that the city could ultimately make a profit after buying out the utility's local operations.
Southern California Edison officials, however, assailed the Beck study. Tom Bryson, an Edison regional manager, said it is "seriously flawed by errors, incorrect assumptions and omissions."
The $225 million it would cost to take over the utility is so great, Edison officials said, that it is unlikely the city would ever realize a profit.
Furthermore, Culver City would be not be able to match the swift and effective service provided to the city during last January's earthquake, Edison officials said.
Since Vera proposed the Edison buyout last September, residents have organized to oppose it. Meanwhile, Edison has waged an all-out public relations campaign, sending questionnaires, letters and reports, one titled "Flaws in the R.W. Beck Report," to its Culver City customers. All but a few of the 27 speakers who addressed the council criticized the takeover idea.
"You should drop the whole thing and not waste any more money," said resident Margaret Clark. As a seven-year Edison customer, she said, she has had no complaints about the utility's service. Culver City, she said, is a different story.
Jody Hall-Esser, the city's chief administrative officer, said that although risks do exist, "the revenue potential is significant enough to suggest another analysis."
But Councilman Wolkowitz said he was worried about the cost to Culver City residents.
"We are the users of electricity in this city," Wolkowitz said. "I'm concerned about the idea of stabilizing city revenue by generating revenue through members of the city."
Vera criticized Edison's public relations blitz as "a cheap scare tactic." He stood behind his idea, saying the financial gains from a municipally run utility would greatly benefit the city. He disagreed with those who contended that the city could not provide adequate service.
"I don't give a damn about owning Edison," Vera said. "But if we did, we would do a better job."