By Sean Meyer/London Community News
The city’s finance and administration committee did a little match making on Wednesday (Oct. 19) as it moved London Hydro and an Edmonton-based utility provider closer to a first date.
That first date, as described by London Mayor Joe Fontana, would see London Hydro and EPCOR, enter into a cooperation agreement that would allow the two sides to have discussions on an exclusive and confidential basis.
“After doing a lot of flirting with us, they may want to have a first date or a second date, and maybe eventually have an engagement. But they might turn around and say it isn’t going to work for us. Nothing lost,” Fontana said. “We will have gained some incredible insight in the utility model we want to create for the benefit of the citizens of London. We would be foolhardy to not even look to get answers to some of the questions we have asked.”
In addition to overseeing municipal utilities in Edmonton, EPCOR also manages numerous others in communities across Alberta and British Columbia, Ontario and communities across the United States.
In his presentation to the committee, EPCOR president and CEO Don Lowry described a scenario where the company would work in partnership with London Hydro to create a more efficient service. Lowry told the members this arrangement would not see EPCOR purchase London Hydro or its assets, but rather invest in the future of the Forest City.
“As we sell down our generation business, we are looking to re-invest over $1 billion and the only places we want to invest are in water, waste water and the distribution of power,” Lowry said. “There are few companies that have the record that yours does and the opportunity for growth. We are looking for growth.”
Several members of the committee expressed skepticism any potential partnership would benefit the community.
Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe questioned just how a potential partnership would benefit the city or EPCOR. “What is in it for EPCOR? Is it because you will get our assets? What’s in it for the city? Is it that over time we believe we will get some dividends? That isn’t very decisive or very encouraging.”
Peter Johnson, London Hydro chairperson, said the discussions are simply an opening discussion. By agreeing to hold exclusive and confidential talks, Johnson said the two sides could collect enough information to determine if a partnership is worth pursuing.
“We are, right now, at very exploratory discussions. Our first priority is the utility model and we will be bringing a report back to you,” Johnson said. “EPCOR presents an interesting opportunity should we proceed with the utility model. From our viewpoint, the compelling contribution they have made to the City of Edmonton and their tax base can’t be ignored.”
Lowry said those discussions would prove invaluable to EPCOR who is also looking to find out whether there is a potential match to be made between the two organizations.
“Until we do the work we are proposing to do, we can’t answer those questions; it would be speculative. We don’t know the size and completion of some of those answers until we look at the books,” Lowry said. “The bottom line is it is your company; it’s your asset. We can’t come without the support to look at what the opportunity is. We need more information.”
Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler said talks between the two sides is like putting, “the cart really before the horse,” adding that of course a business such as EPCOR would present its advantages in the best possible light.
“These guys are going to tell us their model is the very best, they wouldn’t be here wasting our time if they didn’t believe this was a market they want to jump into. I hold no illusions about that,” Baechler said. “This is about a corporatized model of utilities and we as a council haven’t even grabbled with that model yet. We haven’t even had a conversation with the community about this, never mind entering into whether this model would work for us.”
Baechler also expressed concern that in a rush to do something that might benefit EPCOR, or even London Hydro, attention wasn’t being paid to the very people who the system is designed to service.
“There is only one person who pays the bill, the individual who turns on the tap, flips the switch, puts the garbage to the curb, whatever, “Baechler said. “It comes from someone. There is only one person who can pay and this is the thing that matters most to me.”
The committee ultimately voted to receive the report and presentation from EPCOR, while allowing the two sides to further explore possible advantages linked to a future partnership. A report on those discussions isn’t expected to be back to the committee until some time in the first quarter of 2012.