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Trustees election focuses on rates

Earl Wellman says Sumter Electric Cooperative Inc. (SECO) customers pay too much for their electricity. Ray Vick says that's hogwash.

Customers will have a chance today to decide who they think is right. Wellman is running against Vick, the incumbent, in an election for District 5 trustee. A third candidate, Leo Estrella, also has entered the race.

SECO's nine trustees serve three-year terms and represent different regions of the utility's service area. District 5 is from Hernando south to Inverness Highlands, and east to Gospel Island.

Wellman, who owns Citrus Newsstand in Inverness, is being supported by a group of customers named the Organization for Competitive Electric Service, or OCES (that's SECO backwards).

The group has mounted several campaigns to oust incumbent trustees since 1989. Wellman contends that SECO's rates are higher than those of other utilities primarily because of unnecessary expansion in the 1980s.

Building new lines and power stations left the utility saddled with too much long-term debt, he said. As of Dec. 31, that debt totaled $110-million, according to the utility.

But Vick, a builder who owns Midway Construction in Inverness, said the expansions were necessary to upgrade the system.

"We would consider that the rates at this point are as reasonable as they can be to provide the service that our members deserve," he said.

One reason SECO has higher rates than Florida Power Corp. is that it serves rural areas, Vick said. SECO has only 11 customers each mile of line, much fewer than Florida Power.

Also, SECO, with 77 percent residential customers, has a relatively small proportion of industrial users, Vick said.

To try to build its industrial base, the utility bought a 40-acre tract just east of Interstate 75 in Sumterville for $220,000 to develop an industrial park.

But SECO dropped the project because of opposition from members and has put the property up for sale, Vick said. Wellman contends the project was doomed for failure because of SECO's high rates.

Wellman also thinks the utility should try to get out of its 45-year agreement to buy electricity exclusively from Seminole Electric Cooperative. The agreement runs through 2020.

Seminole, which doesn't have any customers itself, has similar agreements with all the electric cooperatives in peninsular Florida, said Jim Duncan, SECO general manager. SECO doesn't have any power plants of its own.

Vick questioned whether other utilities such as Florida Power and Tampa Electric Co. have much electricity to sell to SECO. Those utilities already sell to Seminole, which in turn sells electricity to the cooperatives.

Electing a trustee

Sumter Electric Cooperative Inc. (SECO) customers living in District 5 can elect their trustee in an election at Inverness Middle School today from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. A business meeting open to customers will follow at 7:30 p.m. District 5 includes parts of Hernando, Inverness and Gospel Island. To see whether you are a member of the district, check your monthly electric bill.