OPALCO is overpaying for mediocre leadership | Guest column

OPALCO is overpaying for mediocre leadership | Guest column

By Alex MacLeod

A year or so ago I reported that we OPALCO ratepayers had forked over nearly $400,000 in total compensation in 2017 to our general manager, Foster Hildreth. I wrote at the time that if his pay increased in 2018 at the same rate it had his first two years we’d be paying him as much as $440,000 in 2018.

Little did I appreciate the fiscal profligacy of our board.

Foster’s total compensation for 2018 — the last year such information must be made public — rose to almost $456,000, an increase year-over-year of a little over 14 percent. Over the four prior years, his compensation rose about 50 percent, an increase that might possibly be justified either by outstanding performance or overcoming significant business obstacles, neither of which occurred.

Those of us who pay for this compensation might not be concerned had our electricity bills increased more in line with the cost of that electricity to our cooperative, but that hasn’t happened.

We also might be OK if Rock Island Communications, which we’ve also paid for, had been meeting its financial goals and were pumping profits back into the cooperative, as we were promised it would by now. That hasn’t happened, either. Last year we were told that would happen this year. Now we’re told it will be at least another three years before it might.

Meanwhile, the cooperative has taken on more debt, by far, than ever in its history, and continues to guarantee millions in additional, unanticipated Rock Island debt. The cost of this debt — now approaching $100 million — falls to us ratepayers, generally in the fixed charge we pay to be connected, an amount that has increased far faster than inflation.

Think about this pay — comprised in 2018 of $292,000 in salary and $163,564 toward his retirement (a figure that has increased nearly 75% since he became general manager) — in the context of OPALCO.

First, we’re a cooperative, not a for-profit business. Second, It buys power from a single source at set prices, distributes it, sets rates sufficient to pay for the power and distribution infrastructure, and its small payroll. It is not exactly rocket science. Third, OPALCO has just 50 employees, a reflection of how uncomplicated its business is.

We don’t know what Hildreth’s pay was last year or this because the board doesn’t say. It only is revealed by the Internal Revenue Service on what’s called a Form 990 about 18 months after it is filed, which is where I found it. OPALCO, which began posting Form 990s on its web site several years ago only after being asked, still hasn’t posted its 2018 filing. However, if the pattern of Hildreth’s pay increases over the years it has been disclosed holds true — and there is no reason to believe otherwise — his total compensation this year is about $520,000.

So, here we are, paying outlandish sums for mediocre performance, made possible by a go-along board that puts Hildreth’s interests above all others. Had it been doing its job, it wouldn’t have been throwing ever more money at Hildreth. It would have been finding someone to do the job well and earn his or her pay.

Alex MacLeod is a longtime OPALCO member who lives on Shaw Island.