History of the Fairport Municipal Commission
by Jean Keplinger, Town of Perinton Historian Sept. 2011
Just over one hundred years ago, John Stebbins, Charles Kinney, and James Root, among others, were making their daily rounds cleaning, filling, lighting, and extinguishing Fairport's oil lamps. Cleaning and filling the lamps with kerosene required one or two visits, lighting another, and extinguishing a final trip. The village lamplighters were appointed by the village Board of Trustees, but also made a little extra cash by carrying a supply of kerosene that they sold to householders.
Levi J. DeLand installed electric lighting in the business district 100 years ago.
It was said that both Charles Kinney and James Root had horses that knew the route so well that they would go on to the next lamp if they felt that their masters were taking too long with the cleaning and filling. It was also about one hundred years ago that Levi J. DeLand installed electric lighting in the business district, sounding the death knell for the era of lamplighters and kerosene in Fairport.
From the earliest days of electricity, specifically since 1882 when Thomas Edison pioneered centralized electric service at his Pearl Street Station in New York, there have been both public and privately owned electric utility companies. Private utilities, as profit-making concerns that exist in part to satisfy stockholders, tended to concentrate their efforts around densely populated areas. Rural towns had to produce their own power or go without. The resulting public or municipal utilities that were created are locally owned and operated by the citizens of the community they serve and are not for profit making entities. Fairport Electric has, for example, one stockholder, the village of Fairport. As a booklet published by the American Public Power Association puts it, "public ownership of a utility is like owning your own home. Private ownership is like renting it."
The United States is one of only a few industrialized countries to maintain a mix of both public and privately owned utilities; most others consider electric service along with postal, highway, sewer, and water services to be a governmental obligation. As of 2010, there are over 2,000 community owned electric utilities in the nation, of which 51 are in New York, including, in addition to Fairport, Churchville and Spencerport in Monroe County. The benefits of public power include lower rates and more efficient service than is usually provided by private concerns. Local control means that the utility works in concert with the community to achieve long-term goals. These benefits also tend to attract significant business and industrial development.
The State Legislature passed a law in 1875 allowing villages to "furnish pure and wholesome water to the inhabitants thereof," and another law in 1894 that authorized villages to "furnish electric light or gas light" to residents. Fairport taxpayers had authorized a municipal water system in the spring of 1893 and appointed a commission to oversee it. In January of 1901, Fairport officials constructed a municipal electric plant and began to generate electricity under the jurisdiction of a Board of Light Commissioners.
The final demise of the oil street lamp in Fairport was sealed with the formation on March 12, 1901, of the Fairport Municipal Commission, which would henceforth oversee both water and electricity systems in the village. A three-member commission, F. A. Defendorf, C. Clarence Moore, and H.H. Howell, and Superintendent F. E. Pritchard were appointed by the Village Board. They borrowed $28,000 to install a small steam generator at the water plant on what was then known as John Street (then State Street and now Liftbridge Lane), and construct a pole line to furnish power. This early plant, with a capacity of 150 kva produced by three 50 kva transformers, was able to power twenty streetlights and forty homes daily, from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise. (A Kilovolt ampere, or kva, indicates the size or capacity of the transformer.) By 1905 there were sixty streetlights and 194 customers. By 1930 Fairport Electric was serving nearly 1400 customers 24 hours a day under a contract with Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, negotiated in 1925, to supply it's power needs.
Fairport Electric finished converting to a 60-cycle system and retired its 25-cycle equipment by the middle of the 1930's. A new substation was built about 11/2 miles from the village distribution center that by 1942 provided an additional 3000 kva. By this time the commission was serving 1451 customers in Fairport village and 449 in the town of Perinton and had distribution lines that covered thirteen miles of village streets and thirty-five miles of rural highway. Production of kwh increased about six fold between 1922 and 1942. In 1949 another substation was opened in the Egypt area that provided an additional 750 kva of power.
The 1950's and 60's saw a tremendous increase in the town of Perinton's population as suburban subdivisions replaced farmland. All the new developments needed electricity and Fairport Electric responded. Changes were made in the way that electricity was produced and distributed. The village plant was expanded in 1950. A substation on Turk Hill Road, later to be named for Vincent Lawler, a long-term member of the Municipal Commission, was opened in 1952, providing five new circuits. By 1959 the state Public Service Commission franchise that had been granted to the Fairport Municipal Commission covered an area of approximately twenty-seven square miles, including all of Fairport village and most of Perinton.
Between 1957 and 1961, the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY) constructed two major hydroelectric plants, one on the St. Lawrence River and one at Niagara Falls. An agreement between PASNY and municipal utilities like Fairport Electric allotted municipal utilities and rural electrical cooperatives fifty percent of the new hydroelectric power.
When the new service came on line in April of 1961, Fairport Electric was able to purchase power from the two new plants at wholesale prices and, because it was a publicly owned utility, it was able to sell power at a lower rate than the for-profit utilities. The new hydropower agreement made it possible to reduce Fairport Electric rates by about ten percent.
During the 1960's and into the 1970's, as the community grew, Fairport Electric continued to ask for and receive additional power from the Power Authority. In the early 1970's, however, requests for more power were suddenly denied as the Power Authority claimed that the power had already been sold elsewhere. Municipal electric companies were facing their first crisis and the first of a series of challenges to their promised allotment of fifty percent of the hydropower output from the Niagara projects. According to Robert Vaisey, who was Fairport's General Manager at the time, "If we don't have preferential power and are put at the mercy of private utilities, we'll go out of business." Fortunately, Fairport Electric and its fellow municipal utilities kept their preferential status. These crises, however, and the publicity that accompanied them served to raise the community's awareness of the value of its municipal electric company.
The 1980's saw allotments and preferential treatment continue to be an issue. Although the courts found that the municipals were not entitled to as much power as they had previously been awarded, they continued to receive significant amounts of power from the hydroelectric generating stations.
However, due to the greatly increased demand over and above the hydropower allotment, electricity had to be bought on the open market at substantially higher prices. As a result, there were two rate hikes in the 1980's, a ten percent increase in 1981, and a twelve to thirteen percent increase in 1987. At the time, with the increase, the rates were about forty percent of those paid by customers of Rochester Gas & Electric.
In the wake of the challenges of the 1970's and the greatly increased demand, Fairport and other public power communities in the nation initiated a "Public Power Week" to spotlight the special characteristics and unique benefits of public power in 1987. The celebration helped the community to realize that cheap electricity comes not only because of the availability of hydropower, but also because Fairport Electric has not-for-profit status, and is small and well-managed. The result is good service not only to individual customers, but also to the community as a whole. "Fairport Electric was a major consideration in our decision to locate a major facility in Perinton..." "...your people demonstrate a true concern for the satisfaction of their customers." "The favorable electric rates help us to maintain savings in a marketplace that continues to be extremely competitive." Testimonials such as these are clear evidence of the impact that Fairport Electric has had on the economic growth of the community. The municipal commission has also received special grants of low-cost electricity for several local businesses, which is in line with New York's policy of encouraging businesses to remain in the state. Furthermore it is not uncommon to read real estate ads that tout the fact that a property is served by Fairport Electric, whose rates are about one-third less than those of the Commission's major competitor.
Not only do customers appreciate the low rates, but they also benefit from excellent service. At no time are people more aware of their service than during storms or other power emergencies. Hurricane Hazel in 1954 only caused a fifteen minute total outage and all power was restored within two days. During the great Northeast blackout of 1966, Fairport was one of very few communities that still had power, despite the fact that the Commission was only receiving half of its usual allotment. Given the area's climate, the Commission regularly dealt with snow and ice storm damage. Notable events were the ice storms of 1991 and 2003, both of which did over one million dollars worth of damage, the Labor Day storm of 1998 which destroyed many, many trees and took down over twenty electric poles, and the blizzard of 1999 which closed down the area for several days. One of the main problems with any storm is that most utility lines in Perinton are above ground and are subject to entanglement with any and all downed trees. In addition, in several subdivisions the poles are behind the houses, causing more difficulty. Crews work around the clock during these times to restore power as quickly as possible.
Mutual aid is a common practice. Many crews came to Fairport's aid after the 1991 ice storm. In 1997 workers came from Bath, Wellsville, Spencerport, Salamanca, and Plattsburg, among others. Fairport crews were in turn sent to Rouse's Point and Plattsburg later in that same season to aid in an ice storm cleanup. Feeding and housing not only the local workers but also the out-of-town ones becomes a job in itself during those times. In 1998 and 2003, many crews were fed at the Town Hall as well as at other local restaurants.
Fairport Electric has around forty employees working under Supervisor Mitch Wilke, who has been with the organization for over thirty years. All workers undergo significant training. The Municipal Electric Utilities Association of New York organizes training for several levels of line worker proficiency, as well as training related to safety. For example, apprentice line workers attend four-day training sessions over the course of a year. The training includes lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on experience in such areas as utility pole climbing and the handling of high-voltage repairs.
Perinton has seen significant growth over the last three decades and Fairport Electric has had to keep up with that growth. Not only has the number of customers increased, but the amount of electricity used on the average by each household has quadrupled. Many more homes are completely electric and are equipped with multiple television sets, computers, and other items that constantly draw electric current. The increased demand has created the need for expanded or upgraded facilities. A new receiving station was built on Hogan Road in 1977, which together with a newly expanded Vincent Lawler Receiving Station on Turk Hill Road receives power from the Niagara projects. In 2000 the Lawler plant was expanded again. The power comes in to those two receiving stations and is subsequently stepped down at five substations.
The Commission's agreement that was signed in 1996 with the New York State Power Authority to provide power was renewed in 2003 and will remain in effect until 2025. The Commission receives a fixed amount of electricity from hydropower while the remainder, termed incremental power, comes from other sources like nuclear or coal-fired facilities. The cost of the incremental power is twelve and one-half times the cost of the hydropower.
Despite expansion in customer base and demand, Fairport Electric has had two rate increases since 1988, one in 1993 and another in 2005. In 1993 the Commission inaugurated seasonal rates which charged more in the winter months, but reduced some rates during the summer months. Winter bills tend to reflect higher usage and consequently increased usage of the more expensive incremental power.
Because the challenge to Fairport Electric is to continue to provide adequate low-cost electricity into the future, conservation is encouraged. Just because Fairport Electric rates are low does not mean that the supply is endless or that it will always be cheap. In 1992 the "Watt Buster" program was initiated for those whose homes were 100 percent electric. Energy audits were available and customers could qualify for water heater blankets, pipe insulation and low-flow shower heads, all small but significant ways to conserve. At one point, the commission sponsored a refrigerator buy-back program with the goal of retiring old, inefficient ones. The Commission also began to provide rebates to customers who switch from electric to gas heat. The long-term goal is to limit the increase in usage because once the low-cost hydropower allotment is used; higher cost incremental power must be purchased.
Fairport Electric ran its operations out of several small buildings on Lift Bridge Lane until 2003 when the 100-year-old structures were replaced by a larger, up-to-date facility. The new buildings increased available space from 19,000 square feet to 39,000 square feet, providing room to map electric grids on computers, as well as more space for training and a 25 slot truck bay. The three brick-faced buildings complement the architectural design of the canal corridor. Other developments since the turn of the 21st century include replacing existing residential meters with digital ones and gradually replacing and burying electric lines.
Members of the community are fortunate recipients of the wise decision made over 100 years ago to create a municipally-owned electric utility. Like the other forty-seven municipally-owned utilities in New York, and in an era of increasing population and increasing per household use of electricity, Fairport Electric continues to provide low rates and efficient service. Challenges for the future include keeping up with Perinton's growth and keeping the current facilities, lines, poles, and transformers maintained. According to supervisor Mitch Wilke, however, the most important challenge, as well as the goal of those at Fairport Electric, will be to continue to provide the safest and lowest cost electricity possible.
A letter written in 1928 by Sam Jacobson hailed the benefits of a municipal power commission. In comparing electric bills, he noted that his electric bill was about twenty percent cheaper than those in neighboring towns. The cost of a street lamp in Fairport was less than half of one in Newark, which was served by a private utility. He spoke of the profits that return directly to the village for payment of debts and also for the purchase of such items as ornamental lights. Jacobson's statement that "The people of the village of Fairport should realize that they are shareholders in a paying corporation, a corporation that pays dividends each month, one that they control and serves them well." is as relevant today as it was in 1928.