The dog that didn’t bark: the case of the missing electric co-op members.

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Photo by Seth Heald

 

Readers of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s monthly magazine, Cooperative Living, found a surprise when the magazine’s May 2020 issue arrived. The surprise wasn’t what was in the magazine, but what was missing, calling to mind Sherlock Holmes’s key insight in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of Silver Blaze, featuring a dog that didn’t bark. As Holmes explained to a Scotland Yard detective, sometimes what didn’t happen is as significant as what did.

In an annual tradition going back at least a decade and likely much longer, REC each May publishes in its member magazine a list of co-op members or former members whom REC owes money to but has lost track of. The list usually takes up around two full pages, with perhaps 500 to 800 names listed in small print. Readers are encouraged to look for their own names as well as names of others, and to notify REC if they have information about how to find these missing people. The funds in question are “retired capital credits,” a/k/a “patronage capital,” meaning money belonging to the co-op member-owners that has been invested in the co-op for a time and can now be returned. (As a cooperative, REC is owned by its customers, who are called “member-owners” or just “members.”)

But this year, instead of listing the names in its magazine, REC advised readers they could view the list online. The magazine gave no explanation why REC had changed its longstanding annual practice of publishing the list in the magazine, which is mailed to all of REC’s roughly 140,000 member-owners, some of whom don’t have internet service.

So, wondering why REC had changed its publication practice, I took a look at the list online and discovered that it was 74 pages long, with about 21,000 names.

One mystery solved. Others arise.

One mystery was solved. No wonder REC didn’t print the list in Cooperative Living—doing so would have taken up nearly two entire monthly issues of the 40-page magazine. But additional mysteries arose:

  • Why is the list so long this year (37 times longer than in most years)?
  • How does an electric co-op with around 140,000 members lose track of 21,000 members or former members?
  • Why didn’t REC explain in its magazine why this year’s list is so huge?
  • And is REC’s board at all concerned about a system that retains people’s money for such a long time that 21,000 of them can’t be located when it’s time to return the funds?

I checked with REC and learned that this year’s list of lost REC members is long because in 2017 REC’s power supplier, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), returned patronage capital (a/k/a capital credits) to its member owners, including REC. ODEC had originally obtained that patronage capital from margins (excess annual revenues) that ODEC received decades ago—in the 1980s and apparently even earlier.

REC’s practice for patronage capital it receives back from ODEC is to pass the funds through to REC’s members who bought electricity from REC during the years in which ODEC originally collected the patronage capital. REC said it waits three years after receiving the funds from ODEC before concluding that a former member cannot be located, and then publishes the list of those missing.

I looked at ODEC’s 2017 annual report and learned that in December 2016 its board of directors “declared a patronage capital retirement of $5.8 million, to be paid on April 3, 2017.” REC is the largest member-owner of ODEC, so REC received a good portion of that $5.8 million capital-credit retirement in 2017.

Of course, many of REC’s member-owners from over 30 years ago are no longer around. And that explains why REC can’t find some 21,000 of its former member owners—many of them are long since dead, and others moved away.

Perhaps some REC members will check the 21,000-name list and recognize a name or two, but it seems likely that most of those 21,000 people or their heirs won’t be found. One REC member who checked the list saw her deceased father’s name on it. He moved away from Virginia decades ago and then died in 2013. When the daughter contacted REC, the co-op sent her a letter explaining the cumbersome steps she will have to follow to collect the several hundred dollars owed to her father’s estate.

ODEC financial statements show that ODEC paid additional capital credits to its member-owners in years after 2017: $14.1 million in 2018 and $4.3 million in 2020. That 2018 payment is nearly three times the 2017 amount, meaning that when REC publishes next year’s list of lost members, which may be as long as this year’s, the amounts involved will be substantially greater. This is important, because some people recognizing names of deceased relatives on this year’s list might conclude that the amount they can get from REC now is not worth the considerable trouble it could take to gather the documentation needed to make a claim to REC.  But their calculus on that might change if they know that next year there might be nearly triple as much available. And if they gather and submit the paperwork this year, they won’t have to repeat that process next year.

The theory of cooperative ownership of an electric utility is that member-owners, who are the business’s customers, invest some of their funds in the business as capital, in order to keep the costs of goods sold (electricity) low. That’s why electric co-ops retain excess annual revenues (called “margins”) for a time and then later pay them back to members as retired capital credits, if conditions allow. (More on that here.)  But is that business model really working when a cooperative holds on to the funds for so many decades that a significant number of the member-owners whose funds were retained can no longer be found? One would hope that’s an issue REC’s board members find concerning, but we don’t know what REC’s board thinks because it operates in complete secrecy when setting REC’s capital-credit policies.

For the past two years, the Repower REC reform campaign has urged REC’s board to be fully transparent about the co-op’s capital credit policies, but the board has resisted. REC doesn’t even tell its members what their accrued total capital credit balance is unless the members know enough to ask for that information. Repower REC urged REC to disclose that basic information at least once a year on each member’s bill, but the co-op hasn’t done it.

Lack of transparency discourages democratic participation.

By not fully informing REC member-owners about the details of their co-op’s (and its power supplier’s) capital credit practices, REC’s board indirectly discourages member-owner participation in the democratic governance of the co-op. For if more member-owners understood the details of how capital credits are supposed to work, and how they actually work in practice at REC, then more co-op members would be motivated to demand that board members address a situation where tens of thousands of co-op members (or their heirs) may be losing the funds they invested in the co-op decades ago.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, “the return of [co-op members’] investment through the allocation and retirement of capital credits is one of the concepts that defines a cooperative and distinguishes it from another form of business.” To remain relevant as a legitimate form of business ownership for a monopoly utility, REC, ODEC, and other electric co-ops need to step up their game when it comes to transparency about capital credit practices and ensuring that patronage capital is actually returned to co-op members in a fair and timely manner.

When a 140,000-member Virginia electric cooperative can’t find 21,000 of its members or former members to return their investments, something is wrong.

Seth Heald is a member-owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and co-founder of the Repower REC campaign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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