The problem with power outages in older neighborhoods in Howard County has definitely reached a head — namely, the head of the county.
In the last few months, County Executive Ken Ulman has authored at least two letters — one on Nov. 23 to Michael Fowler, BGE's manager of public affairs, and another on Dec. 22 to Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission — pointing out his concerns about BGE's service reliability.
"Too many Howard County residents continue to suffer from chronic reliability issues in mature neighborhoods serviced by Baltimore Gas and Electric," Ulman wrote in his letter to Nazarian.
"I recently wrote to BGE seeking their assistance in improving reliability in two neighborhoods — Font Hill and Dunloggin. However, the number of neighborhoods with problems appears to be growing, with customers being inconvenienced in the Beaverbrook and Sebring neighborhoods as well," Ulman wrote.
"And while BGE has made strides in its preventative maintenance program, there is more that needs to be done," Ulman wrote. "Chronic outages, even when they affect just a few dozen customers, are unacceptable to me, and, I'm sure, to you."
In all, the letters are just one part of a growing effort from local officials in recent months to work with residents and the power company to resolve on-going problems that first began attracting increased attention following sustained, days-long outages during and after Hurricane Irene in August.
The letters' message that more needs to be done by BGE to improve service is one residents said they've been trying to impress upon BGE themselves for years, to no avail.
They are hoping involvement from Ulman and other representatives will spur more action, said Cathy Eshmont, a Dunloggin resident who has become a leading critic of BGE in the county.
"I'd love to see PSC respond to Ulman's letter with an investigation of BGE," Eshmont said in an email.
In response to a previous complaint from Eshmont and her neighbors, the PSC found that BGE is working to deliver Dunloggin with reliable power, Eshmont said, something she doesn't think is true. She hopes increased scrutiny from county leaders will help reverse that stance and lead the PSC to fine BGE, as it fined Pepco last month for failing to fix problems that have led to frequent outages in the Washington region, she said.
"The PSC needs to be something other than a paper tiger in regulating these utilities," Eshmont said.
A spokeswoman for the PSC said that Nazarian did receive Ulman's letter, and responded with a letter of his own thanking the county executive for his "interest and concern" and assuring him that BGE and the Howard County neighborhoods he mentioned would be kept in mind as the PSC works to create new reliability and service quality standards, a process that is currently underway.
A date for a final public hearing on those new standards has not yet been announced, the spokeswoman said.
'BGE on notice'
Any increased scrutiny of BGE will be welcome, Eshmont said.
The outages, she and other residents have said, aren't just inconvenient, but unfair. Especially in Howard County, they said, BGE power reliability is largely a matter of the haves and the have-nots.
While BGE officials have said that power in the county overall is reliable, and more so than in other local jurisdictions, they have also acknowledged there are pockets of homes throughout the county that experience more regular blips and outages. With a few exceptions, those areas are older neighborhoods with above-ground lines, aging equipment and lots of trees.
Ulman and other officials said they are trying to change that power dynamic in the county, so to speak, to turn those have-not pockets into forget-me-not priorities on BGE's radar screen.
While BGE officials have spoken with many residents and put forward plans to correct the issues in some communities, Ulman said the role of officials like him is to keep BGE accountable.
"We wanted to put BGE on notice that we're watching and we're holding them to the improvements that they pledged, and we're going to stay on top of this along with the residents," he said.
County Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who recently helped organize a meeting between BGE officials and Font Hill residents, agreed, saying she urged Ulman to write his letter to BGE in part for that reason.
"I asked the county executive to write the letter to BGE so BGE knows it's not just one council member, but the county executive and the whole county that's involved in this," she said. "…It's a complex problem, and right now I'm just trying to keep (BGE) doing what they said they are going to do, and so far they have."
Rachael Lighty, a BGE spokeswoman, said the company maintains regular contact with elected officials in the county about on-going projects, an approach that is "par for the course" across its entire coverage area.
"We definitely highly value those relationships with those officials, because they help us communicate with our customers," Lighty said. "They may share information with us that they've heard from customers, and we can work together to help address those problems."
Although Ulman's letters were an outward sign of his involvement on BGE reliability, the county executive echoed Lighty's thoughts that regular communication is maintained between his office and the company. Ulman said his advocacy on the power reliability isn't new, either, nor is the advocacy of the council.
Ulman specifically mentioned efforts by Council member Jen Terrasa years ago to help resolve BGE issues in the Allview neighborhood, where reliability has improved.
Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, said community residents there are the one's who really forced change, but that her lending her voice to their cause did help draw attention — which isn't necessarily a good thing, she said.
"I was happy to do what I did in helping the community, but it shouldn't have taken that much to get attention," she said, noting residents had been calling BGE to complain about on-going reliability issues for years. "They shouldn't have to come to elected officials to get reliable service."
Terrasa said BGE should have a system in place to deal with aging, clearly problematic infrastructure so that neighborhoods — new, old, small or big — don't get left behind.
When they are left behind, it can be dangerous, especially for people who rely on oxygen tanks and other electric-powered medical equipment to survive, Terrasa said.
"From my perspective as an advocate for the community, if you need oxygen in your home, if you are throwing away food on a regular basis, if you don't have the lights you need to stay safe in your home, if you don't have heat in the winter, that impact on one person is significant," Terrasa said.