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LPEA board members’ spending varies widely

Expenses differ based on travel, training and responsibilities
La Plata Electric Association candidates participate in a forum this week at the La Plata County Fairgrounds hosted by Local First, a group that represents local businesses and nonprofits. The candidates, from left, are Jeff Mannix, Joe Lewandowski, Sarah Ferrell and Jack Turner.

As the May 2 La Plata Electric Association election draws near, concern about one candidate’s spending, the board’s top earner last year, has spread on social media.

Former Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown was among Jack Turner’s critics this week online and said LPEA should watch its spending more closely, since it cannot control many of its expenses, such as the price of electricity.

“I believe that you need to save every penny,” he said.

Turner is one of six candidates competing for three open seats on the LPEA board, who could all make $30,000 a year or more for their time and travel if they win.

In the election, Turner is running against Sarah Ferrell to represent northern and eastern La Plata County. Jeff Mannix is challenging Dan Huntington to represent southern and western La Plata County. In Archuleta County, Micheal Whiting is running against Holly Metzler for an open seat. In Durango, Joe Lewandowski ran unopposed and will take his seat in May.

But spending is not as simple as it seems.

What the LPEA hopefuls and their peers can earn varies widely based on their travel and responsibilities, annual expense reports show.

In 2018, Turner received about $29,000 for his time and travel, the most among his peers. The lowest compensation last year went to Bob Formwalt, who received about $8,000 for time and travel, but he served only four months because he lost his seat in the election.

Over the past five years, the board member who earned the most in a year was former representative Jeff Berman, who was compensated $38,000 in 2015 for time and travel. Jerry McCaw collected the lowest amount over the past five years, about $4,000 in 2015 because he did not serve the full year.

LPEA compensation varies because board members receive three forms of monetary benefits – monthly stipends, paid travel expenses and per diem compensation for board meetings. The compensation board members receive is a little above median compared with other co-ops in the state, said Ron Meier, LPEA manager of engineering and member relations.

“People that are raising their hand to be a board member are giving up a lot of their time, and we want to make sure they are fairly compensated for that,” he said.

All board members receive $1,000 per month as long as they attend one board meeting. The per diem compensation for board meetings includes $200 for a board meeting more than four hours and $125 per day for a meeting that is four hours or less. They also receive reimbursement expenses related to attending meetings, such as mileage.

If board members are not taking part in extra trainings or additional boards, they are likely spending eight to 10 hours a week on LPEA business, said board member Britt Bassett.

“It’s a roughly a quarter-time job,” he said.

However, some board members are elected by their peers to represent the co-op at other organizations, such as the Colorado Rural Electric Association, a group that advocates for and tracks state energy policy. An LPEA board member is also needed to represent the co-op on the Tri-State Generation and Transmission board. Tri-State is LPEA’s wholesale energy supplier.

As a result, the compensation board members receive from LPEA depends on how involved they want to be, Bassett said.

“We want directors who are engaged,” he said.

In 2017, more conservative board members Kohler McInnis and Karen Barger were compensated the most for their travel and time. McInnis represented LPEA at Tri-State, and Barger represented LPEA at the Colorado Rural Electric Association.

The two board members’ compensation, per diem and travel costs were about $26,500.

Turner, a more progressive board member, was compensated the most for travel and time last year. However, he was also representing LPEA at CREA and he said his spending was consistent with other board members serving on the same board.

He said the criticism of his spending has been misleading and the education and training he has received through LPEA was needed.

“I aggressively sought the education for this position so that I could offer intelligent discussion and make informed decisions,” he said in an email to The Durango Herald. “This is critical in the changing industry we have. And as a result, I have brought problem-solving skills that have unified the board in making difficult decisions, and I am providing a voice at the statewide level that is being heard.”

LPEA board member Davin Montoya said he strongly disagrees with the spending habits of several of his fellow board members who are constantly attending trainings.

“For what they are spending, we could probably send them to Fort Lewis College and get them a degree,” he said.

However, most board members are hesitant to critique each others’ spending, he said.

In 2016, the board spent $75,670 on conferences and training, $47,398 more than its $28,272 budget, according to public reports.

In 2017, the board was $27,094 under its $85,000 budget for conferences and training, and in 2018, the board was $1,663 under its $60,000 budget for conferences and training. The budget is based on what is expected and reflects historical costs, Meier said.

LPEA Board Chair Bob Lynch said each director should limit annual training and travel expenses to $7,500. Although some directors exceed the limit, it tends to even out because others are below it, he said.

LPEA’s budgets do not assume that all board members will spend the entire allotment, Meier said.

All the LPEA board members’ expenses are publicly posted at LPEA.com.


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