Berea Municipal Utilities (BMU) Director Ed Fortner likens the city’s investment in utility infrastructure to maintaining a family car. To keep a car in working order, the owner makes a lot of small investments in maintenance to help prevent major breakdowns and bigger costs later.
“The city has invested a great deal in the infrastructure of our various utilities – water, sewer and electric – and our administration section,” Fortner said. “That means we’re a modern, reliable sustainable utility. If we weren’t investing back into our infrastructure, it would actually drive our costs up. We maintain our infrastructure to ensure reliability and efficiency.”
BMU has a lot of infrastructure to maintain: 105 miles of sewer lines serving 5,810 customers; 87 miles of water lines serving 4,023 customers; and 81 miles of overhead electric lines and 11 miles of underground lines, serving a total of 5,285 electric customers.
Since about 2005, the City of Berea and BMU have invested over $32 million in infrastructure improvements and upgrades, not including the 2005 purchase of the electric and water utilities from Berea College at a cost of $19 million.
BMU has funded projects that have impacted the quality of life of the entire city, but it has also drawn support from intergovernmental funds and grants and, in one case, Berea College. The list includes:
$200,000 Farristown sewer;
$1 million Owsley Fork Dam project (NRCS Grant Funding);
$200,000 west end tank paint, mixing system;
$50,000 Cherry Road waterline upgrade;
$170,000 landfill upgrades;
$500,000 Walnut Meadow sewer shed/rehab;
$4 million Oak Street substation/conversion;
$1.5 million mini substation (Berea College);
$350,000 BMU roof at 200 Harrison Road;
$150,000 Woodford/Clay sewer rehab;
$1 million Terrill Branch sewer;
$300,000 Dixie Park electric conversion;
$300,000 water plant lagoon work;
$130,000 solar panels phase III/IV;
$40,000 Fairgrounds Rd water line;
$750,000 Walnut Meadow pump station;
$125,000 Solar panels phase I, II (grant money);
$10 million water plant upgrade;
$10 million wastewater plant upgrade;
$500,000 roof – BMU building;
$850,000 AMR metering upgrade.
Some upgrades impacted customers immediately. For example, whereas portions of the city’s electric system were previously subject to unscheduled outages, the 2015 upgrade of the system in Dixie Park, the rebuilding of the Oak Street Substation, and the city’s conversion to a higher voltage system has made for a utility that is more stable and saves energy.
“Our electric system is now definitely on par with any comparative modern electric distribution system in the state, which is very important,” Fortner said. “That’s reflected in our reduced number of unscheduled outages.” Additionally, Fortner said BMU will continue to see returns on that one investment. “Over time, we’ll recoup that money in savings through efficiency, through the loss of less electricity.”
Other positive changes have occurred as a result of upgrades. By implementing automated, wireless meter monitoring (AMR), BMU can monitor a customer’s electric usage in a way that is less intrusive for utility customers. Instead of going into a customer’s yard to read a meter, technicians can gather that information by driving in the neighborhood, then collecting it through wireless technology.
As for the future, BMU is applying for grants for a $2 million sewer project for the Central Park Subdivision. That, too, will be an investment to deliver better service for Berea’s utility customers, Fortner said. “To me that’s just showing good faith and respect to our customers, who expect safe, reliable delivery of these utilities at a reasonable cost. These investments, made smartly, keep our rates down,” Fortner said.
Keeping utility rates low is one way in which Berea customers see a return on the city’s infrastructure investments, said Mayor Steve Connelly. “Berea’s water, sewer and electric infrastructure is often unnoticed and sometimes impossible to see. However, it is fundamentally a business that not only provides essential services to residents and businesses at a reasonable cost, but it also earns a profit for BMU,” Connelly noted. “In a sense, our utilities pay a financial dividend to our citizens who are the shareholders, and by operating this business, the City ensures that the needs of our citizens are paramount in planning and that decisions are made with their best interests in mind.”