No More Tears
Originally published July 29, 2013
Every year since 2006, every one of Hopkinsville Electric’s 40 employees have donated one hour of pay per month to the United Way’s Care Share project. Photos courtesy of Hopkinsville Electric System.
Customers came in droves to the April 17, 2007, meeting of the Hopkinsville Electric System board of directors. They were mad. The city was looking for new sources of funds and the mayor had appointed a committee to look into selling the city’s electric utility to the neighboring rural electric cooperative.
The customers would not hear of it. The meeting had the highest number of public participants of any in the board’s history. More than 75 people, representing industrial, commercial and residential customers expressed their opposition to the idea. The utility board’s response was swift and unambiguous and the vote took place that night: Hopkinsville Electric System was not for sale.
The evident customer loyalty was the result of a longstanding commitment on the part of Hopkinsville Electric System to the community it serves. That commitment begins with bringing low-cost, reliable electricity to the city. The utility has an ongoing public information effort designed to make sure customers understand that they are served by a local publicly owned, not-for-profit utility. If customers don’t know what they have, they may not recognize its value.
But the commitment to community does not stop with electricity. Recognizing the importance of high-speed broadband to modern-day economic success—and the dearth of adequate broadband in smaller cities—Hopkinsville Electric System in 1999 began providing broadband service to business and residential customers.
Commitment does not stop there. Hopkinsville Electric system is a utility with a heart. All employees of the utility have demonstrated a commitment to community service. The employees and board members of Hopkinsville Electric have, for many years, been among the largest donors to the local United Way. And since 2006 every one of the utility’s 40 employees has contributed to the United Way “Care Share” project, in which an individual pledges one hour of pay per month for 12 months. In 2012, Hopkinsville Electric employees contributed more than $20,000 to United Way. Seeing the generosity of its employees, the utility’s board approved a corporate donation of $3,500 to Care Share, bringing the utility’s total contribution in 2012 to more than $25,000. Since 2006, Hopkinsville Electric employees have contributed more than $130,000 to Care Share. The utility’s reputation for generosity stretches back for decades. The utility is a 2013 recipient of the American Public Power Association’s Community Service Award in recognition of this comprehensive devotion to the community.
Hopkinsville Electric System needs to be a leader in charitable giving, says General Manager Austin Carroll (left).
The highly skilled jobs required to run an electric utility make HES employees among the more highly compensated in the region, said General Manager Austin Carroll. “I think it helps that we demonstrate that we are giving something back to the community,” he said. “The community pays our salaries. We need to demonstrate that we’re not only giving back in terms of keeping the lights on and providing telecommunications services, but also in our charitable giving.”
Carroll credits Lynn Clark, energy services coordinator, for convincing her colleagues to support United Way so comprehensively. The utility holds breakfast meetings for employees to encourage United Way donations. Clark offers incentives and holds drawings for prizes. Employees who turn in a United Way pledge card by an early deadline qualify for a prize drawing.
“Lynn does a great job of getting everybody all fired up and keeps moving them up to the next level,” said Carroll.
To stir up interest, Clark each year invites a representative of a local agency that depends on United Way for financial support to speak at an employee breakfast.
“That tugs at everybody’s hearts,” she said.
Beyond charitable giving, HES is an annual sponsor of Earth Day activities in the city with a population of 32,000. The observance incorporates HES customer appreciation activities. This year’s April celebration included a “Healthy Kids Day” event cosponsored by the utility and the local YMCA.
“We had 40-something exhibitors there,” Clark said. The YMCA’s youth league soccer games were played that day on the Hopkinsville Community College campus. “We gave away popcorn at our booth. We give bucket truck rides. One concession stand offered healthy choices like lean hamburger meat. They try to buy the healthiest hotdog they can, baked chips. We tried serving veggie burgers, but they didn’t sell.”
The event also featured a rock-climbing wall and bicycle safety demonstrations.
HES observes Public Power Week every year in October to remind customers that they are served by a utility that they own, with policies set by a local governing board. The utility gets the word out about the advantages of a municipally owned electric utility through newspaper and radio advertisements during Public Power Week. It gives away energy-efficient light bulbs and door prizes and serves punch and cookies in the customer service lobby. Last year’s Public Power Week celebration included a “business after hours” reception for Chamber of Commerce members.
Carroll believes Hopkinsville Electric’s expansion into the broadband market also served to bolster customer appreciation for the municipal utility. The utility’s EnergyNet broadband unit provides direct fiber and wireless broadband service to more than 2,500 customers and there is a constant queue of customers who want to become EnergyNet customers. The local private cable provider is “our best source of references,” he quipped.
Wireless service is freely available throughout the city. All of Hopkinsville is a “hot spot” for HES EnergyNet customers. EnergyNet has installed 575 wireless transmitters on power poles to support anytime-anywhere wireless access. Technical support for customers is available around-the-clock and is provided by a local resource—not an overseas call center, said Clark.
The utility is part of a consortium of seven municipal electric utilities in the western two-thirds of Kentucky that belong to MuniNet, a broadband utility that serves customers not only in municipalities, but also in rural areas that individual cities cannot reach. Carroll expects more municipal utilities in the state to join MuniNet, which is organized under an interlocal agreement. The network offers rural customers a choice other than the large, high-priced private providers, Carroll said. MuniNet today has fewer than 100 customers, but it is growing fast as more fiber is installed, he said.
Hopkinsville Electric purchases all of its power from the Tennessee Valley Authority. The utility was formed in 1942, in the decade following establishment of TVA. HES serves 13,300 electric meters; 11,000 of them residential. The city is the seat of Christian County and is part of the standard metropolitan statistical area anchored by Fort Campbell, Ky., and the city of Clarksville, Tenn., which is 28 miles south. The Army fort, with a Kentucky postal address, actually straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee state line.
The utility’s electric load is 70 percent commercial and industrial. Largest customers include Superior Graphite, which refines graphite for the steel and other industries; U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, a unit of Phillip Morris; Mid-Continent Springs, which manufactures springs for the automotive industry; and Ebonite, which makes bowling balls, pins and accessories.
“Three primary things drive the economy of Christian County: Fort Campbell, manufacturing and agriculture,” said Carroll. The Army fort is driving rapid growth in the area.
Hopkinsville Electric cares not only about its community, but also about its employees. The utility has invested major time and money in its safety program and earlier this year achieved a major safety milestone: 10 years without a lost-time accident.
Just as the customer loyalty does not come without appropriate attention, neither does the safety record.
“Our safety record is in front of everybody, every day,” said Clark, who helps administer the safety program for the utility. “And it takes that, especially with the [line crew] outside.”
The utility’s accident prevention regimen includes quarterly training provided for outside operations by a private safety consultant and internal safety training twice a year for all employees. The consultant talks about fatalities on power system facilities and provides graphic explanations about utility accidents that have occurred elsewhere. Every job on the power lines starts with a tailgate safety meeting conducted by the crew foreman, Carroll said. An employee safety committee, with rotating membership, helps set the utility’s safety practices. The utility follows the APPA Safety Manual for electrical safety.
Hopkinsville Electric rewards employees for safe work practices in very tangible ways. In a partnership with Distributors Insurance Co., the utility’s insurer, HES pays $150 to every employee every six months as a reward for the continued achievement of no lost-time accidents. HES contributes $50 and DIC contributes $100 per person for those incentive payments.
“Every six months, employees get a financial incentive if we have a good group record,” Carroll said. “They really look forward to that. There’s a lot of pressure to make sure everybody’s safe. It does work.”
DIC, the property-casualty insurance company, is owned by the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association and supplies insurance predominantly to TVA distributors. Carroll is chairman of the DIC board.
Beyond military, manufacturing and farming, tourism is another factor in the Hopkinsville economy. The city is gearing up for an expected avalanche of visitors seeking the best view of a total eclipse of the sun on Aug. 21, 2017. The Hopkinsville area is expected to offer the most complete view in the world of the eclipse and scientists and enthusiasts plan to travel to there to witness the event. Borrowing a line from Kentucky Derby promoters, eclipse enthusiasts in Hopkinsville have dubbed the eclipse “the most exciting 2 minutes and 40 seconds in astrology.” The eclipse is expected to start in Oregon and follow a southeastern path across the continent to South Carolina.
Locals have created a Facebook page—Solar Eclipse Hopkinsville 2017—to inform the public about the eclipse. A post on the page notes that the eclipse will be the first total eclipse viewable from the United States since 1991, the first on the mainland since 1979, and the first to sweep the entire country since 1918.
Hopkinsville is also on the Trail of Tears, the National Park Service historic trail that pays tribute to the Native Americans who were driven from their homes in the eastern United States and forced onto reservations in Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears Commemorative Park, owned by a local nonprofit group, sits on the banks of the Little River in Hopkinsville. The site was an encampment for Native American people during their westward journey. It is also the burial site for Fly Smith and White Path, two Cherokee chiefs who died while camped there in the winter of 1838. Bronze statues of both chiefs stand in the park.
Hopkinsville hosts tourists every September for a Pow Wow at the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park.
Every September, the Hopkinsville Trail of Tears Commission sponsors a Pow Wow at the park. The event offers an opportunity to educate the public about the forced migration and is a celebration of Native American heritage.
As part of his personal commitment to community, Carroll serves on the board of the Trail of Tears Commission. The group has completed several renovations to the park in recent years, including moving the pow wow arena out of the flood plain and building a new park entrance. Now, the commission is raising money to finance construction of a new visitors center, which will relate the story of the Trail of Tears, the fate of the two chiefs who died there and share information about the greater Hopkinsville area. The commission hopes to break ground on the visitor center next year.
There is darkness in the history of Hopkinsville, but the city today pays tribute to the Native American people who were mistreated by early generations of European newcomers to the continent. Hopkinsville Electric System service to the city offers a model contrast to the hatred
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