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Weekend power outages highlight Water & Light staffing issues

A former assistant director of Columbia Water & Light said with a fully-staffed electric utility, the city may have been able to handle the weekend snowstorm without the help of other cities.

Tony Cunningham worked for 42 years in the city’s utility department, working as an electric line worker before becoming head of electric distribution. He said crews seemed to work well, given the amount of snow, at getting power restored to nearly 10,000 customers without electricity over a weekend.

“They want to get the power back on to people as quickly as possible,” Cunningham said. “I know that it frustrates them that they don’t have the staffing to be able to do that.”

Former leaders of Columbia Water and Light have warned about staff shortages for months. The department currently fields 10 journeyman line workers and 11 foremen, below the usual benchmarks the city tries to maintain. Some blame the low pay when compared to other public and private utility companies as a reason the city can’t retain line workers.

Cunningham said that while the Friday night snow may have slowed some line workers from getting into work, a more fully staffed department could have dispatched to reported outages faster.

“Here, you could handle a lot of the smaller outages quickly because you have the people to get around,” Cunningham said.

Crews from Palmyra, Rolla, Waynesville and Macon came to Columbia this weekend to help restore power. A Water and Light spokesperson said on Monday that all crews had left town.

Cunningham said calling in help was the right thing to do, given the staffing situation at the city. Requesting help from other cities, though, can be costly and time-consuming.

“Your outside crews, they don’t know where anything is, so you have to provide someone to help them around town to different places where the outages are,” Cunningham said.

The Columbia City Council turned down a 15 percent raise for electric line workers in September, instead asking city staff to come back with more information on the topic of pay. No report has since been made on the issue.

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