We speak of the unflappable Tom Wheeler, 66, president and CEO of Cleveland Utilities, who recently announced to the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities his intent to retire effective Nov. 1. Figuring in unused, accumulated leave, his final day in the office is expected to be Oct. 1.
We call the longtime public utility administrator unflappable because his is not a job that most envy. It comes chock-full of unrelenting pressures, project deadlines, budgetary accountabilities and sometimes angry customers.
Heads of local utility companies often bear the brunt of public criticism because response time is considered to be too slow, rates are felt to be too high or quality of service is perceived as subpar.
Consider these scenarios that bring an undue number of customer calls to a CU manager’s phone:
- A strong storm has disabled electric service in multiple neighborhoods because giant trees are sitting atop power lines and rooftops, transmission poles are broken in two and roads are blocked with debris and stranded vehicles.
- To fund costly improvement projects and system upgrades, and to service expanding territory due to annexation or an influx of new companies or a rebounding economy, residential and commercial customer rates are being hiked — whether in electric, water or wastewater, and sometimes all three.
- Roadside trimming by CU contractors, whose intent is to help avoid future electric service interruptions from downed power lines snapped by broken tree limbs, leaves frontyard canopies misshapen; in the eyes of many homeowners, this becomes an eyesore and often leads to the felling of the disfigured tree(s).
- To cut costs and to better streamline operations, new technology like Automated Meter Infrastructure (AMI and/or SmartMeters) is employed. The words “new” and “technology” are the operative components because both create suspicion among customers; sometimes it is based on lack of information and sometimes just misinformation.
n Monthly bills are considered to be too high, not because of existing rates or because HVAC units are pressed to pump more warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer, but because — in the eyes of some customers — something’s broken in the system, whether it’s the meter or the meter reader. Some even see it as collusion between CU and TVA.
These are just a few examples of the types of complaints any public utility — and its leader — must endure.
Some have merit. Most do not.
Yet, customer service is part of the job in leading a utility company. It is not an easy job. It is not a task for everyone. The number of complaints probably far outweigh the compliments on any given day, week or month. Such a tendency is human nature.
This is why leading a public utility requires a unique temperament, one that can listen to an individual customer with a sympathetic ear yet remain mindful of the mandate to provide a good for the whole.
Since assuming the leadership reins of Cleveland Utilities in 1989, Tom Wheeler has spent the last 24 years anticipating the future needs of this community while empowering a capable staff to design workable, innovative and affordable solutions.
We are not surprised at this talented community servant’s decision to retire. In his own words, “I’ve been here many, many years. I’m pretty tired.”
Wheeler has earned this right. At 66, he still has much to enjoy in life.
Over the next six months, the CU board faces a monumental task; that being, to determine the next in line for one of this community’s most critical governing roles.
We will have more to say about Tom Wheeler prior to his retirement. Until then, we shall treasure the final six months of his wisdom — much of which came naturally, most of which was born from experience.