By DENISE GRANT
There was talk of lawsuits, lost economic opportunity, and even a possible township revolt Tuesday, all as fallout from the continuing rift between Hancock-Wood Electric Cooperative and American Electric Power over which company has the right to provide electricity to some of Findlay’s newest industries.
Findlay City Council, which is debating whether to step into the fight, held an informal meeting attended by nearly 100 people on Tuesday. Each company brought experts and attorneys. The city’s administration also brought in a legal expert. The meeting lasted three hours.
Findlay-Hancock County Alliance’s Economic Development Office, which has been accused of a sort of pay-to-play arrangement with AEP, was again a no-show. The Alliance had also been asked to send a representative to the July 5 City Council meeting to explain its involvement, but did not.
George Walton, president and CEO of Hancock-Wood Electric Cooperative, has accused the Alliance of helping AEP “cherry-pick” large commercial customers from Hancock-Wood’s service territory.
Over the past year, AEP has signed contracts with both Rowmark, 2040 Industrial Drive, and the planned Campbell Soup Supply Co. warehouse. The warehouse is expected to open in the summer of 2018, south of Hancock County 212 and the McLane Co. distribution center.
Tim Wells, manager of economic and business development for AEP, said both companies were more interested in working with AEP. He said once the industrial sites were annexed into Findlay, AEP’s citywide franchise agreement with the city gave it the right to service those industries.
Wells also said Tuesday that AEP actively marketed the warehouse site to potential businesses, as part of the city’s economic development strategy.
Walton continued to argue that for the past 30 years, the two companies would agree to exchange service territories through “swaps.” But when Hancock-Wood refused an offer AEP made to swap a territory in North Baltimore for the Campbell Soup warehouse site, Walton said AEP took the Campbell contract anyway.
Walton said the stakes are very high for the cooperative, which has invested about $23.6 million in infrastructure to serve its territory on Findlay’s east side. Should AEP be allowed to continue to pick off the best industrial sites in that territory, it will put a financial strain on the cooperative, Walton said.
He wants Findlay Council to pass legislation that would protect the cooperative’s service territory. Walton said having council’s intentions known will help the cooperative better argue its case before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Last year, council sent a letter to AEP asking the company to abide by service territory rules, but no formal legislation was passed.
AEP officials said big industries want options, and an infringement on the company’s franchise agreement could bring litigation.
A lack of options also could reduce companies’ interest in Findlay, Wells said.
“We believe we are on solid legal footing here,” Wells said.
Walton said if AEP is allowed to continue encroaching on the cooperative’s service territory, cooperative members, both residential and commercial, will end up paying higher rates to offset the lost investment in infrastructure.
Townships could also become hostile to attempts by the city to annex property, since Hancock-Wood serves primarily rural homes and businesses, Councilwoman Holly Frische said.
Council failed to pass the legislation protecting Hancock-Wood’s service territory at its July 5 meeting.
The ordinance has been reintroduced and is up for the first of three readings at the July 18 council meeting, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. in council chambers.