The news that FirstEnergy is paying $6 million a year to slap its name on the stadium where the Cleveland Browns play has rubbed plenty of people the wrong way.
FirstEnergy’s thinking is obvious: By tying its logo to what has long been the most cared-about sports franchise in Northeast Ohio, it will reinforce its name recognition and put a good taste in the public’s mouth.
FirstEnergy says it needed to pay handsomely for that good PR because, since deregulation, outside power companies have been making inroads in territory it once monopolized.
Yes, competitors have been making inroads. But not because customers are confusing FirstEnergy with, say, Pacific Gas & Electric. The defectors have defected, because they prefer other companies’ rate structures.
In any event, if FirstEnergy believes it needs to drum up great PR, here’s a better idea: Quit slaughtering our trees.
FirstEnergy honchos could have taken the $102 million they’re going to spend on the Browns over the next 17 years and put it toward a sane tree-trimming program.
The current approach to keeping growth away from power lines is reminiscent of Sherman’s March to the Sea: If one leaf gets within a country mile of a wire, let’s maim everything around it, regardless of the aesthetic, historic or emotional repercussions.
’Twasn’t always so. In fact, for many years, the policy was completely the opposite, according to someone who should know.
Copley resident Mark Wasick retired from FirstEnergy after 32 years of service. He experienced multiple aspects of the operation, beginning his career with Ohio Edison in customer service, then moving through the marketing department, the rate department and the purchasing department.
When he took a lucrative buyout in 2003, he was Director of Inventory Recovery, responsible for disposing of assets the company determined were no longer useful, such as power plant equipment and railroad locomotives.
While he was there, he says, the approach to tree-trimming came full circle. Boiling it down to the basics:
In days of old, every dollar spent on tree trimming was reimbursed via a regulated rate structure set by the Public Utilities Commission. So the company bent over backward to make customers happy, even cutting and stacking wood after felling a tree.
Then, as the century turned, in came deregulation. Suddenly, those expenses weren’t directly reimbursed. So the company decided to save bundles of money by doing virtually nothing, removing only trees on the brink of toppling over, identified internally as “Danger Trees.”
But then came the historic 2003 blackout, a string of screw-ups that shut down the power grid in parts of eight Midwestern and Eastern states and Canada. After a special six-month investigation, the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force concluded that one of the four main reasons for the disaster was: “FirstEnergy failed to manage adequately tree growth in its transmission rights-of-way.”
In the wake of that condemnation, FirstEnergy did a 180. Instead of trying to work closely with homeowners, it began to hack down anything in its path — using the cheapest methods possible.
Going cheap means this: The more you can cut away from a tree, the less often you have to return and cut it again.
Going cheap means the use of herbicides.
Going cheap means, as we wrote last Sunday, trying to hack down holly trees that will never grow anywhere near tall enough to threaten power lines 40 feet off the ground. Why bother to sweat individual situations when you can just blow through and annihilate anything in your path unless a homeowner has the time and the nerve and the clout to challenge you?
As a former Copley Township trustee, Wasick knows people. And as a former lawyer, he knows enough about his rights that he’s not going to roll over.
He had his own confrontation with FirstEnergy six years ago. His dispute with subcontracted tree-trimmers turned so ugly that both sides called police. In the end, FirstEnergy backed off on the amount of trimming it wanted to do on his wife’s precious Osage orange trees.
But Wasick says he has no vendetta against the company. As an employee, he was treated well during most of his career, and he was delighted with his severance package. The reason he’s speaking out, he says, sitting at the kitchen table in his ancient farmhouse, is because “people are being run roughshod over.”
FirstEnergy can do pretty much whatever its wants, because it has the law on its side. But there’s a difference between what is legal and what is reasonable — particularly when you’re willing to shell out $102 million just to make people like you more.
FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin insists the company does not utilize a scorched-earth policy.
“We want to have compatible species, lower ground cover that is maybe more amenable to wildlife,” he says. “It doesn’t do us any good to have bare earth there. We try to make the distinction between what’s compatible and [what’s not].”
The state mandates that FirstEnergy examine any particular location every four years near distribution lines (the small lines in neighborhoods) and every five years near transmission lines (the big ones atop metal structures).
“We have over 20,000 miles of transmission lines and almost 200,000 miles of distribution lines,” Durbin says. “That is a lot of electric lines we need to maintain. ...
“We lean on the expertise of the employees.”
FirstEnergy would have more employees to lean on, and more time to analyze individual cases, if it weren’t spending $102 million on the Browns.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.